In addition to his musical pursuits, Bidini has been a journalist since his teenage years writing for the much-lamented late Toronto rock journal Nerve in the 80s. (Not the erotica website, though as we'll see, he might have a place there soon as well.) He was a pop culture columnist for the Toronto Star for most of the mid-90s, and these days contributes to Toro magazine, among others. He published his first book in 1998; On a Cold Road was part Rheos memoir, part oral history of 70s CanRock working class heroes. It's a vital time capsule of Canadian music writing (a painfully short bibliography file, to be sure), and delves into the lost period between the first golden age (Neil Young, Guess Who, Joni Mitchell, et al) and the current explosion (everyone even your non-Canadian friends knows and loves).
Since then Bidini has focused on sports writing, his other love. A true Canadian, he's a hockey nut, which is the focus of 2000's globetrotting Tropic of Hockey and 2005's Best Game You Can Name; the latter is about the Exclaim Hockey League, with oral history interludes from NHL'ers, in a format similar to On a Cold Road. In between was a book about Italian baseball, called, naturally, Baseballissimo. His latest release, The Five Hole Stories, launches the seemingly improbably literary genre of hockey erotica--he'll explain in the interview.
I can't claim to have read his last two books: partially because sports writing really isn't my thing, no matter how well it's done, and partially because I've spent much of the last two years catching up on my canon reading (thanks to the Kill Rock Stars book club Books I Shoulda Read) and avoiding the CanLit and contemporary focus that dominated my fiction reading habits for the last 15 years.
And I've actually yet to dive into Five Hole, despite its brevity and the fact that it's short stories. (This is because I already have too many open books right now: Kafka's The Trial, Paris 1919, Seymour Hersh's The Dark Side of Camelot, Jose Saramago's Seeing, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, and my long overdue dive into the Lemony Snicket series. Needless to say, my reading habits have serious ADD right now.)
In fact, I wasn't aware that Five Hole Stories was coming out the week I did this interview; it was conducted to promote a gig he had in Guelph, not the book. He arrived at our meeting with a copy, so my questions on that topic are obviously blind.
In addition to talking about the new book, we discuss his upcoming project Around the World in 80 Gigs. Part of this involves his trip to China last year. It was a trip the soon-to-be-defunct Rheostatics were supposed to make; instead, Bidini went over there with his old friend, singer/songwriter/all-around-good-guy Alun Pigguns.
Dave Bidini is reading at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto tomorrow night, December 5, with comedy troupe the Imponderables (who helped make this hilarious commercial for indie store Zunior.com, recommended for anyone who either loves or hates any band from Montreal with "wolf" in their name.)
October 19, 2006
locale: Café Faema, Dupont/Christie, Toronto
I recognize some of these titles from years ago. How many are older stories?
They were all lying around. It’s always daunting with fiction, because you want stuff to stew as long as possible. I also knew that because it’s erotic hockey, it’s not like I would have to worry about it measuring up against the last erotic hockey collection. I felt that on the strength of the idea alone, I could throw this together and not be too self-conscious about it.
What precedent, if any, is there for this?
I did find a website from this woman in Alabama who writes BDSM sex stories about hockey, but there’s no BDSM here (in my book). I was going to send her stuff, but that could be opening a terrible can of worms.
Even sports fiction—I’m not conscious of a large subgenre.
W.P. Kinsella, Quarrington—Canadians, really. Not a lot, though, it’s still fairly small. Quarrington in his last book, Galveston, wanted to write the world’s longest sex scene. I think it’s around three pages long. But part of this was to try to do him one better.
I’m sure Anais Nin wrote longer sex scenes than three pages.
I guess. But he ultimately abandoned the idea.
The obvious sound bite question is, why hockey erotica? What strikes you as erotic about hockey?
The idea is to come at sports writing from a different angle. A lot of the subject matter in here—when you’re sitting around talking hockey with guys, that’s always the most interesting stuff. It’s all off the record, but those are the stories you remember when you come away from the table. I just felt like it was time to bring those stories above the table and acknowledge the fact that there is an enormous subculture of sex in hockey culture, hockey life and the hockey community. We’ve been around hockey for hundreds of years in this country. Surely in the 21st century, we’re mature enough: the game has matured, the community has matured to the point where we can talk about these things and address them and relate sex to hockey players’ lives, their culture and their community. As opposed to whispering these legendary stories under our breath for fear of people being shocked to no end.
When you talk about sexuality and hockey, are you talking about off-ice puck bunny stories, or on-ice sexual tension?
Everything. It’s all in there. Inner team, out of team. Again, the sexual element looms large in some stories and smaller in others. Some people have asked me how much of it is rooted in truth, which is a weird question for fiction…
But a common question these days [post-James Frey].
Yes. I remember [70s rocker/radio DJ Bob] Segarini telling me about a club called the Moustache across the road from the Montreal Forum. They would do week-long sets there, and whenever the game would end at the Forum, the players would come over to the Moustache to party. He remembers their first set ending around 11.30 and going upstairs and seeing Bobby Hull horseshoed by 20 young French Canadian blondes, rolling a big hash joint. That image always stayed with me, and there’s an unnamed Blackhawks star from the early 70s in one story here. He’s in a scoring slump, and he goes to see his favourite prostitute—concubine, really, to resolve his issues.
If I were to think about eroticisation and sports, hockey would be last on the list. I would think of the slow grace of baseball, the homoeroticism of football, and wrestling is obviously very sexual. With hockey, you have a lot of armor on, it’s cold…
Ah, but those goons disrobe when they fight, don’t they? Grapes [Don Cherry] is always saying, “Two beautiful guys!” He’s always showing a clip of the Probert/McSorley fight, where they knock heads gently at the end and wink at each other. Some of them blow kisses at each other. One of the things that struck me about Russia was seeing players kiss after they score.
Is there something about being bundled up in a cold climate that adds to sexual mystique?
Margaret Atwood would write about lovers underneath the covers in the winter in a cabin. It’s the same thing in hockey, where you’re in this cold place and the players are brought together, and the heat generates sexuality in a northern context. There’s also that brawn vs. grace thing that happens in hockey, too. I don’t know how that relates to sex…
Then there is the ballet element to hockey, the very graceful dance.
Part of the reason I’ve never related to soccer is that it seems very jerky, whereas hockey is very fluid.
Until I started to play soccer when I was in Italy for the baseball book [Baseballisimo], I was never really able to appreciate soccer and the foot ballet. Until you actually try to do it, you don’t realise how light you have to be on your feet. I remember the revelation coming after playing for an hour, and in the last five minutes of that hour players would still be able to deek through the other team and put the ball in the top corner of the net. Meanwhile, I’d be having a heart attack on the sidelines. To be that good while that tired, that was the real insight for me about soccer, how amazing the players are at that level.
They’re running a marathon.
Totally, it’s unreal.
Whereas using skates is practically cheating. Can you explain in a nutshell the concept of the Five Hole?
Do you know what the Five Hole is?
No, I don’t.
Okay, so a goaltender has five holes, five weak spots. Top left (shoulder), top right, bottom left, bottom right, and the five hole is (whistles) between the legs. In hockey terminology, they say, “the five hole takes it away” or “through the five hole.” “That goalie’s weakness is his five hole.” It seemed like an obvious metaphor.
That’s very emasculating, if your weakness is your five hole.
What’s the relation with the One Yellow Rabbit theatre project in Calgary?
It will happen January 4-6 and then tour nationally—unless it sucks.
I thought you did this already, no?
No. The Rheos were out there last January for a week at the High Performance Rodeo. They’ve been around for 25 years doing alternative theatre, and this is the 20th year they’ve done this theatre festival. It’s a great time and they really wanted to work with us in a larger context. I had sent them a play I had written kind of like [Neil Simon’s] The Sunshine Boys, but it’s two old rock slobs. We were talking about doing that, and then I mentioned I had these erotic hockey stories, and they said, ‘that’s the ticket. We want to do that. Send us the stories and we’ll adapt them.’ So me, [fellow Rheo] Martin [Tielli], Ford [Pier] and Selina [Martin] have been writing the music. It’s going to be a full-on theatrical extravaganza.
Is there a thread through it, or are you adapting each individual story?
We’re figuring out now how that will work. The dramaturgy will kick in when I go out there in November to crack it and put it together. But right now it is five stand-alone vignettes tied together thematically.
There was a snippet of something on your website, what was that?
The spoken word thing? That will be a monologue delivered by one of the actors, I think in a Ziggy Stardust goalie pose. That monologue is the last story in the book. We’ve been in the studio trying to figure out how these literary concepts can be applied theatrically and musically. It’s not unlike Group of Seven in that you get paintings that you have to set to music.
In terms of other projects, I knew about your rock’n’roll trip to China, but I didn’t know you had gone to Finland and Russia recently too. Is this part of a new book?
That’s the Around the World in 80 Gigs book. I’m supposed to deliver that in the spring and it will be out next fall, but I don’t know. I might wait a little longer. It depends on how many other countries I can get to. I’ve done about 50 gigs now. I have to make sure I get to enough countries that it feels pan-global.
Is that to rock’n’roll what the Hockey Nomad was to hockey? [Hockey Nomad is the TV documentary adaptation of Tropic of Hockey]
In a way. Not really, though, because obviously music in these places is not exotic the way hockey would be. It is the same thrust: going to these places to find rock’n’roll stories that are new to us and hopefully will illuminate the context of rock’n’roll in these places and finding local heroes. It is the same spirit, but the conceit is less about finding surprises.
One of them still is a Communist regime, and one of them is the former Soviet state. How subversive is rock’n’roll there?
Suprisingly, there’s a big history of rock’n’roll in Russia—largely suppressed, of course. But it’s been around. China was just… extraordinary. We were in towns where they’d never had a rock band play, never. People were bewildered. We’d try to get them to clap on the 2 and 4—not that I’m a big clapper guy, but you find yourself doing that stuff anyways. But you’d try and get them to clap on the beat, and instead you’d just get (starts clapping) applause, right? Then you get them to do the hands-over-their-heads waving thing, and they’d be watching their hands [instead of you]. And you’d walk out to play and there’d be a kid in the front row eating a turtle. It was awesome.
Then we were in Changsha in Hunan province, which is kind of like the Hamilton of China—mind you, there are a lot of Hamiltons in China. Pretty down and dirty place, especially after coming from Shanghai, which is almost like L.A. The kids in Shanghai all had bad teeth and were all ugly and all loved Motorhead. There’s only one Motorhead album sanctioned in China, but this one kid was boasting that he had seven Motorhead albums that his uncle in Birmingham, Alabama had sent him. Another kid asked us if we wanted to go smoke some pot. It was nice to find rock’n’roll in the poor northern provinces, where it’s a more of an underground phenomenon than in the northern cities.
We played this old amusement park. I asked them the night before if there were any opening bands, and they said, ‘Oh yeah, two local opening bands.’ We were supposed to go on at 2PM. I said, ‘Oh, I’d love to meet them and interview them.’ They said, ‘Great, we’ll pick you up at 8.30.’ ‘8.30?’ ‘Yeah, they’re going on at 9 in the morning. There will be four hours, and then you guys go on. We thought we’d put the Hunanese bands on in the morning so as to not discredit your performance.’ Because rock’n’roll musicians there are considered failures, real societal pariahs. If you’re over 21 and you’re still in a band, you’re a loser.
How does that relate to other artists? Is that purely a rock’n’roll thing?
Literature and poetry have long traditions in China, unless you’re any kind of honest journalist, and then they throw you in jail.
Is this a post-Cultural Revolution thing, about the respectability—or lack of—for musicians?
That’s part of it, for sure. I’d liken it to being a baseball player in America in the 1910’s. It’s not honest work. ‘What are you doing?’ That’s the sense I got. But it’s a regional thing. In Beijing, there was a band there who were like the Donnas, a hard-driving girl rock band. They had five songs that were not banned from radio play necessarily, but the government had come down strongly, saying that they found these five songs to be not appropriate. The band had this big outdoor show a week before we got there, and they started their set with those five songs and the kids went crazy. In Beijing, things are changing and rock’n’roll is becoming empowered. In Russia, you find this rising youth culture, but there are also way more cops and soldiers on the street than ever before. In China it’s the same thing, they’re moving and moving, and at one point they’re going to find out what’s behind door number three, you know?
It’s interesting, because in North America, rock’n’roll is the least rebellious thing you can do. There’s a prescribed package that comes with it, a model you’re supposed to follow. And in the internet age, I’d just assumed that package has been franchised everywhere and it was a given—in the same way that my generation inherited the rulebook from the boomers or even the punks ten years before us.
It’s refreshing that there’s still a frontier for rock’n’roll in parts of the world. I remember being at this Blackalicious show at the Opera House a week before I went to China. There were four bouncers sitting on top of the speakers, and any time a kid in the audience lit a cigarette, they came down on them.
I was there last week for TV on the Radio, same thing.
Right. In China, there’s the Red Guard in Tianamen Square, and it was interesting to compare the two. What’s the microcosmic police state? Is it the fucking Opera House with these goons smashing kids with their flashlights, or is it China, where the security guards are having a smoke? I remember at the end of our show at Sujo, everybody was sitting on these white bucket chairs. It was almost like a convocation rather than a show. Before our last song, Andy, the promoter, gets up and says, ‘Everybody can come to the front of the stage now!’ Everybody got up. I told Andy afterwards, ‘You know, storming the stage when you’ve actually kind solicited it…’
Which happens at the ACC or Massey Hall all the time: “Everybody, you can dance now!”
Right. So they all came to the front and we played our last song. At one point a cop came bursting through the crowd, and I thought, ‘Uh-oh, someone’s going to get in trouble.’ Instead, he was waving ten yuan because he wanted to buy an Al Piggins CD. Now, this is not to say that there aren’t people in prisons getting the shit beaten out of them. But in a rock’n’roll environment, it was interesting to see this difference.