Final excerpt from Have Not Been the Same today, to mark the eve of the penultimate Rheostatics show tonight at the Horseshoe. Who's the ultra-secret opening act? Full report tomorrow.
For Dave Bidini's perspective on the impending break-up, look here. For parts one through three, look no further. For an excellent and thoughtful obituary, check out Howard Druckman's fine piece of writing in Eye Weekly here. I couldn't have said it better myself. Even more illuminating are comments from Laura Barrett, Feist, and others here.
After the release of Introducing Happiness in 1994, Dave Clark became increasingly disenchanted with the band’s state of affairs. “We ended up getting stuck in business, which is the worst place for any band to be,” he says. “I’m the type of person who doesn’t deal well with an overload of negativity. We would go out and have these incredibly ecstatic live shows, with everything from the deepest angst from the darkest pits of our being, to the brightest, happiest times. Certain people started to feel the pressure of commercial aspirations. We were working hard, had girlfriends and were trying to get a life. At the same time, spending that much time with the same four people locked us into a pattern of socializing, so everything was a little bigger than it could have been.”
Things came to a head while the band was touring in the UK in the fall of 1994. “You could see that people were getting tired,” says Clark. “We’d get to a gig and all people would do was complain about their gear. I thought, ‘Fuck, a year ago we were playing on gear that we were hammering together.’ For me it was becoming less about the music and more about everything around it. The joy of it just left me. I enjoyed the people – Dave, Tim and Martin were fun and really nice guys. Martin in particular is hilarious; no matter how much angst was going on between us, he was always very funny and is to this day. But I knew I had to quit and I couldn’t bring myself to do it, because it would be quitting something that had been such a huge part of my life.”
Looking back, Vesely says of Clark, “He thought we were more industry-oriented than we actually were. His interest had gone further and further away from keeping within the mainstream. It might have appeared that that’s what we were doing, because people would latch onto the song ‘Claire,’ even though we were doing all this other stuff. He was reacting against that more than he should have. We definitely weren’t as far apart as he thought we were – or we thought he was.”
In October, 1994, the Rheostatics played two fateful gigs at the Zaphod Beeblebrox club in Ottawa, with Dinner is Ruined opening the show. “They set up all this wacky gear,” says Clark, “and I hung out with them because it was exciting to hang out with different people. They were really eccentric guys.” With a hint of disdain, Clark continues, ‘This was just after that single ‘Claire’ on the charts, and we started to get more of a collegiate audience. It was different; we were getting more guys [in the audience], I don’t know why. [Dinner is Ruined] played, and people felt threatened and wanted to beat them up. Of course, they weren’t afraid at all. I was sitting there thinking, ‘This is great!’”
“All hell broke loose,” says Morningstar. “That was the phase of DIR where we just brought all sorts of shit on stage and tried to make as much racket as we could and keep it going. It was a college drinking crowd, and they were booing us. Dr. Pee ran out into the crowd along the stand-up bar with a microphone, looking for whoever was booing us. I found some movie poster, and I hurled it into the crowd and it hit some gal in the head. This guy came up to me and tried to start a fist fight with me while I’m on stage, and I was like, ‘Hey, fuck you!’ It was pandemonium, fucking lunacy. Clark was just snapping pictures. The next night was all-ages, and these kids were totally into it.”
Morningstar continues, “But after the first night, Pee and I went to a party somewhere in Ottawa and then left to go back to our hotel room. This was Ottawa, it was October, and it was freezing out and Pee had the window rolled down. I told him, ‘John, roll the window up.’ He just said, ‘Michael Stipe.’ Because Michael Stipe always has to travel in his own van so he can have the window down, apparently. I said, ‘Fuck off, Michael Stipe, you’re not Michael Stipe, roll up the window.’ I pulled the van over and said, ‘Look man, it’s fucking cold, have some decency and roll the window up! I’m giving you to ten, either roll the window up or get out!’ He got out and said, ‘Alright, fuck it.’ We were miles away from where we were supposed to be, and I said, ‘John, ten count. Here we go… bye!’ I drove off to our buddy’s house, and didn’t hear from John. The next night at soundcheck, the Rheos were asking, ‘Where’s Dr. Pee?’ ‘I don’t know, left him by the side of the road.’ He showed up. He had slept in a parking lot garage. He ran into some prostitute and her john, who woke him up and turned him on to some hash. The Rheos were like, ‘What? You guys did what?’
“Later that night, while we’re playing on stage, halfway into our set, I heard this drum. I turned around and there’s Dave Clark playing his drum kit on stage with us. Clark’s been a part of every gig ever since. He told me he was hearing voices on stage that night telling him, ‘This is your part. You belong in this. This is part of your future.’”
“After that I was a big fan,” says Clark. “They had freedom and a real spirit. It wasn’t cerebral. It wasn’t from the head down; it started at the crotch. I started going out on gigs with them, and they didn’t even ask me to learn any music.”
Clark’s last gig with the band was playing “Claire” on Rita McNeil’s CBC-TV variety show. After that, they held a band meeting. Says Vesely, “We sat down eventually when his days were up and he was ready to quit and we were ready to tell him to quit. He came up with this ultimatum list of all these points. At the time, we thought, wow, you can’t bring an ultimatum to the band and say ‘this is what we should be doing.’ So we said, ‘Yeah, maybe you should look for something else.’”
Clark says, “When I was leaving the band, I said, ‘This is the way I’d stay in the band: if we had Kevin Hearn join the band; change our management; and start paying ourselves so we can live’ – and a bunch of other things that subsequently happened, but I didn’t have the patience to stick around.” Vesely concurs: “A couple of years down the road we ended up being at all those points, which is a bit unfortunate. Maybe that’s what it took.”
Immediately after his departure, Clark booked a gig at Ultrasound with Lewis Melville, Kevin Hearn, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir guitarist Andrew Whiteman, and Rheostatics guitar tech Tim Mech. He dubbed it The Woodchoppers Association, and it was completely improvisational, free-form music, which continues today with an ever-revolving cast of characters.
Clark and the other members of the Rheostatics had an acrimonious relationship for years, and they didn’t bury the hatchet until the band’s 20th anniversary shows in March, 2000 at Ted’s Wrecking Yard in Toronto. Dinner is Ruined opened two shows, and at the end of the second show, Clark sat in with the band for the song “People’s Republic of Dave.” “It was nice to see the guys,” says Clark. “It tied a bowtie on something that will be looked at as a beautiful and wonderful time. I strongly reiterate: the time that stuff was going down, when I wasn’t enjoying it, was very, very small compared to the other 99 percent of it that was fantastic. The band was magic. I’ve since had that magic with other bands and other people.”
After Dave Clark’s departure, the Rheostatics were determined to continue. Introducing Happiness had only been out for four months, and “Claire” had just won a Genie award for best original song. After a month, they started to get antsy and decided to move on. Their first call was to Don Kerr. “I saw the name Rheostatics everywhere, all my life,” says Kerr, “but I never saw them until two years before I joined the band, when they walked into the studio.” Kerr had never heard Whale Music before, and the first time he saw them play was at a benefit gig at Sneaky Dee’s, where Kerr was accompanying cellist Anne Bourne.
Kerr got the call to join in February, 1995, and the first song he played at his first Rheostatics practice was “A Midwinter’s Night Dream,” a Tielli song that would appear on Blue Hysteria. Their first gig together was an unannounced shot opening for London, Ontario smart-rock band Adam West at the Horseshoe. The second was in Calgary, kicking off a western tour. The band took on much more of a rock edge right away, with a faster version of “Saskatchewan” and a more straightforward, riff-rock approach to “Fan Letter to Michael Jackson,” from Introducing Happiness. The latter was released as a 7” single, marking Kerr’s first recorded Rheostatics appearance.
Because Dave Clark was such an integral part of the band’s sound, the difference was jarring at first. “I loved Dave Clark,” gushes Yvonne Matsell. “I adore Don as a person, and he’s wonderful as a musician. But that was really hard for me to deal with, hearing Don play the first couple of times. All their material is in my head, because sometimes they’d come in [to Ultrasound] and rehearse for hours at a time. I remember waiting to hear Dave’s fills, and it was throwing me off. But now, he’s been a great choice.” Kerr knew that he had an uphill battle for the fans’ acceptance. “At first there were some drummer fans who said, ‘I could play those parts better than that guy,’” says Kerr. “But most fans knew that it was a different thing.”
The band’s next project was a commission, like the Whale Music soundtrack. This time, the National Gallery in Ottawa wanted the band to compose music to celebrate a retrospective of paintings by the Group of Seven. The band would debut the music live at the Gallery. To pull it off, they enlisted the help of Look People keyboardist Kevin Hearn to help them with the composition and performance.
“We just scraped it together,” says Kerr about the initial performance. “We had never even run through the whole thing. We thought we’d have the day to rehearse it at the sight, but we got there and the P.A. was still in the truck. The only time we did the whole thing was in front of the audience. It was amazing to turn around and look at the visuals.” The multi-media show was accompanied by projections of film and slides thematically linked to Group of Seven work.
When it was over, they decided to work on the music a bit more and commit it to disc, which they did in the space of two weeks. They would perform it live on two other occasions, this time with Bob Wiseman filling in for Kevin Hearn, when the exhibition travelled to Toronto and Vancouver. “It made me think that the sky’s the limit,” says Bidini. “The fact that if that project became a reality, created its own momentum and had a life of its own, then anything’s possible. I didn’t think we’d be able to pull it together, that people would like it and that it would be an important part of our career, but it has.”
The time had now come to focus on a new album of songs, The Blue Hysteria, which again marked a few changes for the band. They had been dropped by Sire in 1995 due to “corporate ennui,” says Bidini. Not only was Blue Hysteria the first “real” album with Kerr, but it was the first time since Melville they decided not to work with Wojewoda. The songwriting and arrangements were also quite a departure.
“When we went to the Gas Station and started recording,” says Bidini, “we all thought we were going to record live and be a bit more rock. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t want to work with [Wojewoda], because we wanted it to sound more like four guys playing together. There were some things we wanted to try. I thought editing ourselves would be a problem on Blue Hysteria, but it wasn’t really. To me, Introducing Happiness sounds more self-indulgent, but not in a bad way.”
“When I joined the Rheos,” says Kerr, “everyone was like: ‘Yeah! We can play some straight-ahead rock now, and no one’s going to turn the beat around on us!’ I was having fun; I like to play more groove-oriented than Dave Clark sometimes. But everyone was unleashing these rock songs, and I don’t like rock music at all. I like something to be straight ahead, but grooving and soulful, like the Bourbons. It was like everyone was getting their ya-yas out after Clark was gone. There are some dumb heavy metal approaches. ‘Bad Time to Be Poor’ is a good song. Everyone just wanted to plow, and I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I like to do the weird shit too!’ But that was just a phase.”
There was some interest from other major labels for Blue Hysteria, but the band decided that they were better off charting the waters themselves – especially with a raw, warts-and-all rock record. “[Major labels] never know what to do with any of our records,” says Bidini. “There’s no ‘Claire’ on [Blue Hysteria], that’s for sure. But then again, there was ‘Claire’ on the last one, and it didn’t really matter.”
Through some twist of fate the Rheostatics landed their second hit single with another Vesely composition, “Bad Time to Be Poor,” a pointed swipe at the individualistic turn in Ontarian society following the election of an arch-conservative provincial government: “It is a bad time to be poor/ ‘cause we don’t give a shit no more/ if you want to go for help don’t look next door/ the line’s been drawn and staked outside.” That climate also seeps into Bidini’s “Feed Yourself,” a homicidal tale that details a girl’s gruesome murder and the urban paranoiac witch hunt that follows.
Otherwise, Blue Hysteria falls short at a time when they were poised to capitalize on increased awareness of the band. As a first impression for new fans, The Blue Hysteria does not suggest the rich history of the band nor their continuing potential. The two best songs – “Feed Yourself” and Tielli’s “A Midwinter Night’s Dream” – were bettered on the band’s 1997 Double Live album. Oddly enough, the album’s most enduring performance is a goofy ode to The Who’s “A Quick One” entitled “Four Little Songs,” a live favourite consisting of four linked vignettes sung by each band member.
Upon the album’s release, the Rheos were chosen to open for The Tragically Hip on a 30-date cross-country arena tour in November, 1996. It was an experience Bidini would later detail in his 1998 book On a Cold Road, where it would take on mythological meaning, and rightfully so – it was a nod of approval from the country’s biggest rock band, one that would expose the band to hundreds of thousands of new fans.
The Rheostatics had played with the Hip before, both on multi-band festivals: Canada Day 1994 at Molson Park in Barrie, and in 1995 on the Another Roadside Attraction tour. Both incidences had them on in the middle of the day, and this time they were the opening act. That tour undoubtedly brought them plenty of attention, new fans, and for Bidini, the opportunity to eloquently write his way into the CanRock pantheon. The members of The Hip would sing the band’s praises in many interviews, and on stage Gord Downie would sing excerpts of Blue Hysteria material in the middle of Hip songs.
Not only did it give the band short-term publicity, but a permanent place in Hip mythology. On their live album Live Between Us, recorded at the tour’s Detroit stop, Downie opens the show – and the album – by saying, over the beginning of “Grace Too,” “This is for the Rheostatics – we are all richer for having seen them tonight.” Says Tielli, “I was up in the rafters when he was saying that. I was up on the catwalk, 200 feet above the audience. I was shaking in my boots, mortified and grateful as hell.”
Earlier that evening during The Hip’s soundcheck, Bidini was interviewed and modestly downplayed the importance of the tour. “It’s going as well as can be expected,” he said. “We’re all a little sick of doing short sets and the same kind of response night after night. It’s a little hard to keep playing just for yourself, because that’s all you can really take back from it, but it sounds really good. We played in Vancouver, and the best night was the second night of the tour. As soon as we came out on stage, a big 350-lb guy in a Team Canada sweater, got out of his seat, stood at the top of the stage and started waving his fists in the air before we’d even played a note. He was our audience, and it was great.”
Reflecting for a minute, Bidini continued, “I thought about what [this tour] would be like with Dave Clark. His whole thing was to really take things to the extreme, and he would have relished this scenario. We’re playing it pretty straight. Then again, compared to the Hip, we probably sound like the Local Rabbits: we’re moving around, going crazy, trying funny things, playing weird, goofy music. We feel like we won some kind of lottery.”
Don Kerr recalls, “We were basically musical ushers as people were finding their seats. We just went for it. We wanted to be ourselves. There was none of that thing: ‘We gotta scale it down, play the same songs every night and hit them with the most impact.’ Although we felt that way a bit at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was Toronto, and we wanted to be tight and exciting. That was an unbelievable thrill, playing two nights at Maple Leaf Gardens. The second night I rode my bike there.”
Those two gigs closed the tour, and ended a productive 18-month period that saw the Rheostatics redefine who they were, setting a template for the five years to follow. Kerr was now juggling commitments with Ron Sexsmith, his old friend who began touring the world in 1995 on the heels of an international recording contract. In 1998, he’d enlist Vesely into Sexsmith’s band, which ensured that the Rheostatics became more of a part-time band that focused on specific projects and limited touring. They released the comprehensive Double Live album, a session recorded for the final night of David Wisdom’s Night Lines program, and a kaleidoscopic children’s album—The Story of Harmelodia— produced by Wojewoda that picked up where the sonic experiments of Introducing Happiness left off. In November, 2000, they entered the Gas Station with producer Ian Blurton to start recording their first “real,” non-project album since The Blue Hysteria. [This would be 2001's Night of the Shooting Stars, the best of the late period albums.]
On that night in 1997 at Cobo Arena in Detroit, Bidini mused about the band’s future. “I was thinking about ways to take our music to another level,” he said. “It all starts by sitting down with the guitar and a crazy idea and seeing how far you can take it. It’s the same process whether you’re writing your first song or your thousandth. We’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before – by us, and by other band’s standards, too.”