Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Call of the Brave

It’s been more than touching to witness the outpouring of love for the late, great Brave New Waves. The CBC finally decided to ax the 23-year old pioneering radio program this month, after years of neglect, suspicion, and gross misunderstandings as to what its importance and impact—and most importantly, its potential—really were.

As mentioned before, I had the immense pleasure of working on the show from 2003-2006. This, however, is about my entirely non-professional relationship with the program.

I first heard about the program from my Uncle Rob, who was the lone hipster in my dad’s family. Well, as much of a hipster as one can be when living in tiny, rural Carnarvon, a hamlet in the Haliburton Highlands. By day, he was an appliance repair man. By night, he played blues harmonica and flute at the local inn. One night, he came to our Scarborough home for dinner and brought a copy of Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock album (the one with “Rockit”). For some obtuse reason, he thought that everyone else in my conservative family would love to hear it.

He didn’t get the reaction he was looking for from anyone but me, the 12-year old who had recently used his allowance money to buy his first two seven-inch singles; one of which was “Rockit” (the other was Thomas Dolby’s “Hyperactive”). Everyone else thought it “wasn’t music.”

That summer, knowing that I liked music that “wasn’t music,” he told me that I should listen to a new show on the CBC called Brave New Waves. I didn’t listen to anything other than AM pop at the time, and I certainly didn’t grow up in a CBC family. I was intrigued, but didn’t think to follow it up, not even knowing where I could find the CBC on the dial.

The next summer (1985), I was bored at the family cottage one night, and hungry for new music—or any music—on the local radio dial. Huddled over my radio on the floor of my bedroom, I came across a squawky saxophone, a vampy bass line played on organ, primitive drums, and a woman with an impossibly huge and squeaky voice commanding her band to “Play me that rhythm on the drums!” The song got more ridiculous as it unfolded, the key constantly shifting upwards, the saxophone getting raunchier and more dissonant, the voice more unhinged. The band was Condition, the radio show was Brave New Waves, the host was Brent Bambury.

Nothing would ever be the same. I was hooked, fascinated with whole new worlds I never knew existed. Back then the show started at 11pm, a reasonable enough hour for me to stay up and hear at least the first 90 minutes. I didn’t understand half of what was going on--I was 13-- but I knew that it was important, or at the very least that these artists were interested in shaking up the way I saw the world. Bambury was the ideal host: wide-eyed and witty, curious and never condescending, and struck the perfect balance of contextualizing this crazy stuff for newbies without talking down to us. Listening to him speak, I wanted to learn everything.

Every single weeknight of high school, I’d be glued to my radio, trying to keep up with the threads that connected the wildly diverse BNW playlist. I taped profiles of Dead Kennedys, Jonathan Richman and Public Enemy that revolutionized the way I thought about not just music, but art, aesthetics, and politics.

The show also drilled a valuable life lesson into me: no matter how much you think you know, you don’t know shit. Every single night I was amazed at how little repetition there was on the show’s playlist—and not just tracks, obviously, but artists and entire genres.

I distinctly remember the feeling I had the first time I recognized something they played before they announced it: not that I’d heard it before, but I recognized some identifiable characteristic of an artist that no one else I knew had likely ever heard of. I felt like I’d cracked a code, like I was one step closer to being in the club. It was exhilirating.

It was also exhausting. Brave New Waves kept me awake deep into the night. No matter how much pain I felt at the sound of the morning’s alarm, it was always, without exception, totally worth it. I’m also convinced that part of my procrastination problem with high school assignments was that I actually wanted to stay up all night writing, if only to have an excuse to listen to Brave New Waves.

For a good 15 years of my life, I fell asleep every night listening to the show. One can only imagine the effect that had on my subconscious. And more than several hundred times, I woke up in a panic at 3am to the most ungodly sounds, some of which permeated and/or caused my nightmares. By the time I was approaching 30, it was simply too stressful, and I limited myself to whatever I could actually stay awake for.

The weirdest thing ever was when the show switched from being a six-hour live show (11pm to 5am) to being a three-hour show, with the second three hours being a repeat of the last week’s show from the same day. It took me about a month to figure out they had done that; in the meantime, I woke up at some point of every single night with a seriously confused case of déjà vu, and convinced that the past week had never happened.

During the day, however, I was still a conservative teenager. I resisted the smug Anglophilia of CFNY that all the cool kids canonized, preferring instead the classic rock history lessons I was getting on Q107 (thank you, Bob Mackowycz). This created a dichotomy that’s shaped me ever since: too square for the hip crowd, too downright weird for the straight crowd. In fact, when Patti Schmidt offered me a permanent position at Brave New Waves in October, 2002, my immediate reaction was to blurt out, “Really? But I’m a Blue Rodeo fan!” I still didn't feel cool enough.

Canadian culture of all kinds loomed large on Brave New Waves—yes, even including Blue Rodeo at a very early stage of their career (back when Bob Wiseman had ten-minute, dissonant Monk-inspired organ solos in the middle of their songs). Filmmakers, novelists and performance artists would share space with garage bands, new wave weirdos, avant-garde composers, indie impresarios, techno kids and other oddballs. Together, they represented the kind of Canada I wanted to live in.

Brave New Waves is directly responsible for getting me to seek out independent record stores, like the Record Peddler, across the street from Maple Leaf Gardens. It’s also directly responsible for sending a scared suburban boy out to Kensington Market on a winter’s night to his first rock club show, a Deja Voodoo BBQ, when he was only 16. (I tell the rest of this story in the comments section here.)

And, along with people like Daniel Richler, Laurie Brown and the aforementioned Bob Mackowycz, it was Brent Bambury who made me want to join the conversation, to be an advocate, a critic, an enthusiast, an investigator, an interrogator.

I remained as faithful a listener as I could through my university years. Even though my horizons had broadened considerably, Brave New Waves still kept me on my toes. The Lollapaloozification of underground music forced the show’s programmers to dig deeper, the more obscure the better. This was to the chagrin of the show’s first generation of fans, who either weren’t up to continuing challenges, or felt adrift without readily rockist reference points, and didn’t understand why bands who were once staples of the show weren’t getting played anymore Reason: they were suddenly deemed too normal. Or popular.

Brent Bambury stepped down in 1995. I have his entire last show on cassette somewhere. The profile that night was not of an artist, but of trepanation (“Head Like a Hole,” etc.). I stayed up all night with my girlfriend at the time to listen, which in retrospect was a big deal for me, as I was beginning to wonder if my musical obsessions and late night radio habits were precluding me from having relationships. I loved my radio too much to share the night with anything else.

Patti Schmidt took over as host, and there’s no question she was green, especially compared to the seasoned pro Bambury had become. She’ll tell you this herself (and refuse to let you listen to her early shows). Many listeners took this as a reason to stop listening; however, I suspect they were already on the verge due to the playlist’s increasingly obscurist bent. This was also the period of time when guys with guitars weren't that revolutionary anymore. Stereolab and Tortoise were the new cool kids, not some version of punk rock stuck in the 70s. Or the 50s, for that matter, like the Og crowd, god bless ’em.

Brave New Waves celebrated their 15th anniversary in 1999. I had recently become a freelance writer, and tried pitching the story to various media outlets, none of whom were interested. What I thought was a major milestone in Canadian public broadcasting didn’t seem to register at the Globe and Mail or the new National Post. (Stories did run in the Toronto Star and Now Magazine.) I wrote a brief story instead for Exclaim, who was co-presenting a series of shows with BNW that spring. That was the first time I ever talked to Patti Schmidt.

Even back then, she was convinced the show was going to be cancelled any month now. She was as paranoid as she was prescient. Keep in mind that this is a show that once held an on-air party to celebrate its first four months on the air, being convinced that they would have been cancelled by then.

A year later, Patti called me to invite me to work on the show for one week in December. She eventually lured me to Montreal to work on the show for three years. More on that another day.

But I'll leave with my final memory of listening to Brave New Waves. It was back at my cottage, the May long weekend, 2006. I'd left the show in March, partially because I knew it was a sinking ship and it was a depressing place to work, to say the least. I'd been told that the show was going into repeats for at least the next three months. Contracts were not being renewed, the staff was fleeing (well, the one that was left, the Rt. Hon. Gordon Krieger), no commitment was being made for September. The show's future was uncertain at best.

Patti was going to do a last show on the Friday night. My ladyfriend (who, unbelievably, is an even bigger radio geek than I) and I stayed up in front of a fire, deep in the Kawartha woods, and listened to the whole thing on a tiny boombox with a scratchy signal, just like that first night I ever heard the program 21 years ago. I recorded it all on cassette, just like Brent's last night. It didn't matter to me that I had finally joined that club, that conversation, that link to the outside world. It was still exciting and vital radio all about the thrill of discovery, right down to its last proper broadcast.

What saddened me the most was not necessarily the end of the program, but the fact that it wasn't being celebrated as such. Patti wasn't allowed to tell anyone that this was the end, and yet here was a four-hour conceptually programmed show about radio, about history, about legacy, about mischief and mystery, that concluded with an hour of William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops. She'd probably been programming this show in the back of her mind for years.

At the end, where she would normally read about 10 seconds of credits, Patti instead listed every single person who had ever worked on the program: (apologies if I mispell those that I don't know)

"Augusta LaPaix, Alan Conter, Brent Bambury, David Ryan, Kevin Komoda, Sophia Hadzipetros, Philip Sporra, Heather Wallace, David Oancia, Sue Patel, Bryan Zura, Gen Hsietek, Gordon Krieger, Suzanne Matchak, Yuani Fragata, Michael Barclay, and Steve Guimond. My name is Patti Schmidt. Of course there were scads of freelancers, contributors and a whole load of artists and producers. All of it nothing, of course, without your ears."

Update: here's the final set list from May 27, 2006. I don't know how it works, but according to this invaluable resource, apparently someone has uploaded the entire show here.

“Strong Bads” from online cartoon Home Star Runner

Avalanches – “Radio” from Since I Left You (Modular, 2000)

Prefuse 73 – “Radio Attack” from Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives (Warp, 2001)

Gold Chains – title track from Straight from Your Radio EP (Tigerbeat 6, 2002)

Meat Beat Manifesto – “Radio Babylon” from 12” single (Mute, 1990)

Rcola – “On the Radio” from Lead the Way (independent, 2004)

Solvent – “My Radio” from Apples and Synthesizers (Ghostly International, 2004)

Guepe – “Radio Trio” from Left Behind in the Water (Natacha’s Recordings, 2003)

Messer Chups – “Anton LeVey 66.6FM” from Crazy Price (Ipecac, 2005)

Les Maledictus Sound – “Radio Pirat Program” from s/t (Mucho Gusto, 1991 re-issue)

Dymaxion – “The Haunted Radio” from Times Four Plus Three Equals 38.33 (Roomtone, 2001)

Elevator – “I Am a Radio Station” from A Taste of Complete Perspective (Teenage USA, 2000)

Grandaddy – “Hand Cranked Transmitter” from Signal to Snow Ratio EP (V2, 1999)

Heavy Vegetable – “Radio” from Frisbie (Headhunter, 1995)

Pavement – “My Radio” Westing by Musket and Sextant (Drag City, 1993)

Six Finger Satellite – “Last Transmission” from Paranormalized (SubPop, 1996)

Bikini Kill – “New Radio” from The Singles (Kill Rock Stars, 1998)

Republic of Safety live concert from the Tranzac: “Disposable World,” new song “lies and freight trains,” new song “rip you apart,” new song for “all the apologists,” new song, new song “get up, get over it,” “The Favourite Game,” “Vacation.”

Steve Roden’s In Between Noise – title track from The Radio (Sonoris, 1999)

Vittorio Gelmetti – “L’Opera Abbandonata Tace E La Sua Cavita Verso L’ester” from Musiche Elettroniche (Nepless, 1997)

Richard H. Kirk – excerpt from Darkness at Noon (Touch, 1999)

excerpts from The Conet Project (including “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”) (Irdial, 1997)

William Basinski – “DLP1.1” from The Disintegration Loops (2062, 2001)

I find it telling that the final commissioned work for Brave New Waves was a concert by the Republic of Safety, four Canadians who grew up on the program, the show’s ethos seeping into almost everything they’ve done as artists, activists, facilitators, critics, and musicians—people who make it happen. And in a perverse irony, the band couldn’t actually hear it this night: they were launching their new EP at a show in Montreal. Like so many of the first generation of listeners, this group of people didn’t have time to sit at home listening to the radio anymore. They were too busy out in the real world, making it happen. But they knew how important their childhood inspiration was. On the opening song of their set that night, they sang: “It’s your love, don’t throw it away.” Finer words for a covert funeral I can hardly imagine.



rb said...

fascinating! do you still have the jonathan richman profile on tape?

Dacks said...

What a heartfelt tribute, michael. Thanks for sharing.

Too bad the follow up to Rockit - "Perfect Machine" - was such a piece of shit.

mmmbarclay said...

i never throw out any tapes, as my family and roommates can tell you. finding any of them and cataloguing them (never mind uploading them) is another story.

cleverlazy said...

can we put cataloguing the cassettes into a pre-nup?

Anonymous said...

Excellent tribute to an excellent show. Having discovered it in my early teens also, I completely relate. You mentioned Brent's last night on the show, and I never had a chance to listen to that. It would be awesome if you can dig that up for us. Despite the obviously crappy mood of the place while you worked there, I want to give you, Patti and everybody big ups for holding everything together.

tjo' said...

Nice, man. Nice.

Anonymous said...

Nice post! thanks....

Mickey P. said...

"I distinctly remember the feeling I had the first time I recognized something they played before they announced it...."

I know exactly what you mean! It's a great feeling. My partner of 5 years knows me as a classic rock music fan. She was somewhat surprised the first time I went out to a Death Metal gig but she was totally dumbfounded when she heard me discussing in depth Afrika Bambaata & Soulsonic Force, Parliament, Funkadelic, George Clinton & The Mothership Connection.

"You understand what they're talking about?"

I do not go out of my way to be controversial in my taste but I don't like limiting myself to any particular genre. I prefer to hear music that isn't played ever half an hour on Radio XYZ. I enjoy hearing music I haven't heard before and most of all, I love that feeling when you hear something for the first time and feel the hair prickle on the back of your neck.

freQazoidiac said...

From what I understand, all funding went into George Stropoloplis' contract agreement. This all happened as the hipster facade called the HOUR started.

I rather enjoyed and was also stimulated by many programming adventures on BNW's from 1986-2001. I started to lose interest in Patti programming late by the late 90's.
Although I loved Patti's voice and obvious collaboration with Ninja Tune, I dug on Brent's style best. Probably because his radio show was the first for these ears to hear a full Hour spotlight on Public Enemy. Anyways, great writeup! thanks for sharing the link. It will be interesting to hear the last show. I will be linking some old BNW shows on my blog in the near future also, from the late 80's I too have stored on magnetic tape media.

Anonymous said...

i used to listen to this show in the mid 80's. it was awesome! it was broadcast over a windsor channel that played classical music all day. they broke for news for half an hour, then went into four of unheard of and some of the most interesting music i have ever heard. the coolest part of it was that you could listen to it in the quiet of the early morning hours. i wish this show was still around. i wish they would repeat it. i wish i knew the names of the bands and songs. i wish i had the one cassette tape that i had recorded over two or three nights (my tape player finally ate it). i wish i could find the playlists from those early broadcasts. i miss this show!! badly!!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the post! This is amazing, especially that they used to have Strong Bad on the radio. I love that web cartoon! I'm sad that we're getting to the point that all radio programs are about appliance repair or something.

Anonymous said...

I miss Augusta's apple!