Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dave Bidini: Out of Africa

Regular readers of Radio Free Canuckistan likely discerned long ago that much of my adult musical life has been shaped by the Rheostatics, who packed it in almost a year ago now. Since then, founding member Dave Bidini published a memoir/travelogue/rock'n'roll book that's much, much better than its clunky title: Around the World in 57 1/2 Gigs.

It's Bidini's second proper rock'n'roll book, the follow-up to On a Cold Road--a must-read history of Canadian rock music that tells the story of not only the Rheostatics through the 80s and 90s, but that of the bands that came before them in the 70s, when slogging it across the prairie spine in pursuit of rock'n'roll glory still involved plenty of uncharted waters.

Part of that book's charm was its ability to tell stories that we thought we knew, but didn't really--and I'm not just talking about Rheostatics fans, but about all rock fans in Canada who don't think about what happens during the long slogs between gigs, about the horrors and hilarities of the working musician's daily existence beyond the usual biz stories about being shafted by record labels.

This time out, Bidini takes us to places we never think about in the first place--such as what it's like to play Canadian folk songs in a Finnish bar with African women and Azerbaijani piano players. Around the World is about the period of time leading up to the final Rheostatics show at Massey Hall, when Bidini is finding his feet as a solo musician--and doing so in places deep in mainland China and in war-torn Sierra Leone.

The best thing about Bidini's writing is that he always calls it as he sees it; he's not trying to create some kind of overly conscious cross-cultural connection to African hip-hop, or to offer a post-modern analysis of cultural imperialism and white colonial guilt. He's an open-minded , wide-eared Canuck, a rocker first and foremost, one who happens to be an astute observer of the absurdities that bind us together, whether it's a collective obsession that men with skates have with placing a small black disc in a net, or the universal truth of a power chord on an electric guitar.

In Around the World, Bidini finds himself more humbled than ever while facing the impending break-up of his band. As one of his close friends once told me, Bidini is a lifer: he married his high school girlfriend, he still wears ratty old hockey sweaters that he first donned in the early 70s (thankfully only on special occasions--he's really quite a dapper man now), and he's only ever really played in one rock band in his life. Having the rug pulled out from one of the certainties of his life--the Rheostatics--leaves him more open than ever to new discovery, to personal re-invention, to challenging conceptions he's held his whole life. Witnessing that unfold in his writing is a beautiful thing.

I had more in-depth thoughts when I first read the book (I've since given my copy to my brother for Christmas), so don't consider this a proper review. I will say, however, that it's one of the few music books I've even bothered to pick up in the last five years or so. (That it came out around the same time as Carl Wilson's mind-blowing musing on Celine Dion is purely coincidental timing--I'm not going back to rock books, really. They bore me as a genre.)

At the book launch in the fall, Canuckistan comrade Shannon Whibbs told me she had a great conversation with Bidini for that was, as always no matter the medium, whittled down to a couple of hundred words. Because Bidini and I have gabbed at length countless times before, I thought I'd give Ms. Whibbs the spotlight here instead.

As I'm typing this, I realize that Bidini is playing right now at the Paddock to kick off the Exclaim! Hockey tournament this weekend (an annual event he wrote about in his book The Best Game You Can Name). No doubt you'll see him out and about, on ice and off, at that event all weekend. He is playing April 18 at Call the Office in London. Rheos fans should note that there is a new, downloadable "box set" of Rheos rarities being made available. And he's also been in the news lately for matching fellow hockey rock nut John K. Samson by "winning" the CBC's Canada Reads contest; Bidini championed Paul Quarrington's King Leary. All other things Bidini, music and literary, can be found here--including links to musical works in progress. His debut solo album, The Land is Wild, is expected later this year.

Without further ado, over to you, Ms. Whibbs.

Dave Bidini
Interview by Shannon Whibbs
July, 2007
Locale: McClelland & Stewart office

SW: After you knew the Rheos were breaking up, you did this solo tour that took you all over the world. What prompted you to write a book about all these experiences?

DB: I thought it would make good fodder for storytelling. When I’m away, I’m writing all the time anyways, in my journal and stuff. I want to see this as a bookend to On a Cold Road; that was about all the time up until a certain achievement, and this is the shadow of that. Having achieved that, it was sort of the top of the mountain and this is the other side of the mountain, and I thought that was worth talking about, through the energy of my trip or travelling.

SW: Did it start and end as you envisioned it, or did it change form?

DB: It changed a lot. I had this wish list. Originally it was gonna be 80 gigs; that was the working title. But we ran out of time. Also, family life [was a factor] too, with two kids. Some part of me envisioned just getting on a train and going right across Europe with my guitar; then I realized, practically and logistically speaking, that that was probably a book that was more suited to somebody with a freer lifestyle. And for the travel in this book, I used up all my coupons, all my domestic coupons, so I had to scale it back a little bit. In the end I wanted to have a full enough view, a perspective of “the world.”

SW: The book is a deeply personal reflection of the break-up of the Rheostatics. Do the other guys know what you’re getting into?

DB: Well, usually with Martin [Tielli], I’ve got carte blanche. When I was doing On a Cold Road, he said to me, “You can write whatever you want about me, it doesn’t matter.” And it really doesn’t—mostly because his memory recall isn’t that great [laughs], and so often he’ll be happy that I remembered half the stuff. Also, because of that book, the guys know that all bets are off; they know me as an honest musician, so why wouldn’t I be an honest writer? Actually, in a way it’s a relief that I was able to write about a breaking-up band that’s never really necessarily going to have to work together—as opposed to On a Cold Road, where I did, to a point, have to be a little bit careful that I didn’t say things that would come back to haunt me. But like any piece of art, the only way it would be a good book, an honest book, was to make it completely honest and real.

SW: I definitely felt that when I was reading it. As a fan, it was really heartbreaking to read. Were you able to achieve your goal in writing about it — were you able to achieve some closure?

DB: Yeah, for sure. For me, the closure came with Dave Bookman’s [on-air] interview [at CFNY] when he surprised us with [The Secret Sessions tribute album.] That was a great moment because we were together and we were all really emotionally moved and there were a lot of tears that night. It was good for that to happen a week before the actual show; you get that all out of the way. If we’d just shown up at Massey Hall, or at the few rehearsals at Massey Hall, and had not been together and experienced that emotional sense of closure, relief and comfort, then it probably would have been a different show and it probably would have been really, really difficult on an emotional level. Because we’d had that time, playing the show was more of a celebration than anything. Personally, and also in the literary sense, this book achieves a certain closure, too.

SW: What are you hoping that fans will take away from the book? Do you think that they will be able to achieve a sense of closure through it as well?

DB: I think so. I can relate that mostly to the response to On a Cold Road. I know a lot of the stories in that book were important to readers—not necessarily Rheostatics fans, but musicians, in the sense that they could see themselves reflected. [For] fans of the band, they got a sense of what we had gone through, personally and musically, as the band was coming together and also [the] Dave Clark break-up [Clark was the first Rheostatics drummer, 1979-1995]. That whole thing was illuminated [in the book] and I think—not that this would be the sole reason for the book—that our fans deserve that because they do pay such attention to the musical detail. And I think there is emotional detail in the literature based on the band. So I think people will get a greater sense of who we are and who we were and that, in a way, informs the experience as a fan and the appreciation of the music.

SW: For me, as a fan, it felt like it helped tie everything up. And when I was reading, I found it to be such an interesting mix of genres, which is great because there are so many travelogues written, and so many memoirs, and so many musical history books, but you’ve kind of mixed them all together in a really amazing way. I was wondering about what sort of readership you were envisioning when you put this book together.

DB: When the first two books came out, On a Cold Road and Tropic of Hockey, there was a lot of back stuff in there about playing music as a kid and rediscovering hockey as a young adult and stuff, but I never really saw it as memoir-ish. There was this whole big memoir wave and people were saying, “Oh, your books are like memoirs.” Growing up, I thought that a memoir was something that an 80-year-old guy would write. I always felt a little bit slighted or cheated when people would call it that. But this book, simply because I’m older and I’ve seen more stuff, is slightly more memoir-ish than the others and that’s just a product of age, I think. Maybe that’s informed a little bit by the maturity of the writing. Because I’m traveling to other places there has to be a travel element to it. Because it’s a reflective look at the band’s history there’s going to be a memoir-ish quality, and it’s also going to be a rock ‘n’ roll book because it’s about rock’n’roll! I would have denied it if I had tried to excise those elements and when you’re writing, you’re not necessarily thinking in those terms, either, that it’s three genres in one. You just write and then it’s over and it’s for other people to call it what it is.

SW: Which leg of your trip had the most impact on you?

DB: They all impacted me in a different way, I’d say Africa because I’d never been there before and I met people with such a completely different perspective, just a different life. And it’s the Africans who have been in contact [with me] the most and are probably the most eager to maintain those connections, too. But of all the places that was where I felt like I was truly far away and it felt like real travel writing, going off the beaten path.

SW: Have you found that your travels have impacted your songwriting since?

DB: It’s hard to say because it really hasn’t been that busy musically, but I wrote some stuff when I was over there and these things tend to produce themselves down the road; it might not necessarily make an instant impact. It’s also not as if the Rheos were a straight rock ‘n’ roll band. There were also African elements [in that band], so it wasn’t as if all of a sudden I started making African music and wearing jazz hats and playing a drum. But I have a song on the solo record that’s almost done, which is a long 14-minute song about a guy I met in Africa.

SW: I was trawling around on your website yesterday and I was able to listen to the MP3 of the performance of “Horses.”

DB: [laughs] It’s insane, eh?

SW: It was so great to have an audio to go with the visuals in the book. It was so powerful. I’m trying to imagine you standing there, taking it all in, going “what the hell?!”

DB: Yeah, it was mindblowing, astonishing. One of the things I did find with this book was no matter where you go and no matter who you’re playing with, you’re able to achieve that centre of just pure, musical exchange and musical communication. And I knew for them, that I was a guy playing a guitar and there were guys playing drums and people singing and it wasn’t really so absurd. I didn’t want to project to them that I thought it was really absurd that a white guy was coming to Africa and playing just for them! For them it seemed natural, so in effect, it seemed kind of natural for me, too. At one point this one woman stood up and closed her eyes and put her hands up in the air and started singing this song this hoser anthem that I wrote at King and Parliament and in my parents’ house. When you’re used to playing it in Canada, it was awesome to see that moment of musical translation and seize on to it. It was really beautiful.

SW: How did that and your other musical experiences in Africa effect your perception of how music is made in North America and how it’s structured?

DB: In Sierra Leone, people there are making music in spite of the fact that they have nothing. It’s a destroyed city with no money and no infrastructure or anything like that, but yet people have to play, against all odds. You do get the sense of the pampered-ness of music [in North America]. On a certain level, there are people here playing who live day-to-day and doing it because they have to do it, but it totally makes you appreciate it more. In the Studio D in Sierra Leone, they couldn’t record unless they had money to buy fuel to run the generator. Here, it’s like you go home, you plug in your computer and you tune up and play and you have a song. It’s much harder over there, so it gave me a new appreciation, for sure.

SW: The section about Africa is one of the most intense ones, and some of the stories were just horrifying. Are you hoping to raise more awareness, through the book, about these issues?

DB: Oh yeah, for sure. And not only that, just to tell stories for people who wouldn’t normally have their stories told. The other thing about Africans is that they’ll tell you the story just as if you and I were sitting around talking about hockey. And for them to have absorbed it for it, to come out the other way—completely calm and a sort of natural sense of oneself—it’s pretty amazing. It would have twice the book if I’d told every story.

SW: Regarding another section, that great stream-of-consciousness thing [wherein Bidini constructs a mammoth sentence of rock’n’roll memories that lasts over two pages; it's on pp182-184 for those following at home] in the China section, which ends with “In my life, rock ‘n’ roll has meant everything to me.” What brought it on and did your editor mention anything about it when you handed in the manuscript?

DB: She didn’t touch it, which was amazing. And of course, that was one of those things that you write in four minutes and it just pours out of your wrist. It was really fun to write and when it was done I was like, “Wow. That’s done.” I fiddled with the last line a little bit, but I really didn’t have to touch it that much. It was a blast. I’ve read other books before like this—I guess Roddy Doyle’s books are like that a little bit, in The Commitments when they’ll be arguing about who’s better, Marvin Gaye or Otis Redding— and it just evokes all kinds of memories of those songs and thoughts of those songs. That was kind of the intention, so that you’re reading it almost the way that you listen to a radio dial sort of spinning up and down, all these melodies and these thoughts. At the end of it, you’re so charged and so excited about being a music fan that you’ve shared in that kind of connection, too.

SW: That’s how it made me feel. You get the sense in reading the book about just how much you love rock ‘n’ roll.

DB: For sure. A lot of music criticism and a lot of music books tend to be a little bit bloodless. There’s always exceptions, but [there’s always] a bit of a distance, y’know? Fuck distance! It’s okay to say you love it if you love it and to prove that you do. I always have to kind of bring myself back a little bit remembering that rock ‘n’ roll is important and exciting and fun and huge in a lot of people’s lives and to portray myself as being one of those persons, it isn’t necessarily not more literary or lacking poise. I’m just going to celebrate it, right?

SW: When you travel to new and foreign places, you often go in to these experiences with preconceived notions of what you’re going to find. Did you have some of these notions of your own and were they kind of shattered when you were over in, say, China, or even Finland?

DB: Yeah, and Russia, too. I was certain—well [traveling companion] Al [Piggins] was certain—that we were going to get killed in Russia. The first time I was there I thought that as well. It was completely demystified. That’s why we travel — to have those stereotypes and misconceptions smashed. It’s the same thing with Africa; I thought it was one of those trips that I might never return from—which is a reason for going. But people talk about the fucking bugs, and they talk about how dirty it is and how you’re going to get really sick. In Sierra Leone I had a really bad three-day cold, and I saw like, four mosquitoes, and I didn’t see any guns. I saw some shady characters, but it was an easy place to be. Even though it was very sad—and a lot of parts of Africa where I was, people’s lives are very tragic— it was just really fun. I hadn’t prepared myself for fun because I was so on edge about what it was going to be like. Then you get there and people just want to have a good time. Finland was probably exactly how I thought it was going to be until our last show, in Eastern Finland and everybody was crazy and fun.

SW: I like your whole section comparing Canadians and the Finns and realizing that we’re not nearly as similar as we’d like to think.

DB: Fuck, Canada’s changed a lot. Canadians have really come out of their shell.

SW: What’s next for you in terms of your solo music?

DB: That’s something that’s going to come out eventually. I’m working on it with Don Kerr and The Scribbled Out Man guys — Paul Linklater, Doug Friesen — and Don is producing it in the studio. But Martin [Tielli] and I are doing a lot of stuff, too. We’re doing the soundtrack for this film and trying to figure out what to do, how we’ll go about it. And we did this Five Hole thing [based on Bidini’s book Five Hole: Tales of Hockey Erotica]: it was me, Selina [Martin], Martin Tielli, Ford Pier, and Barry Mirochnik doing the music for this [theatrical adaptation] that happened in Calgary and that was really fun. We did six songs for that and it’s going to go tour on the road as well. It’s going to go across the country in ’08.

It’s funny, before Massey Hall [closed the chapter on the Rheos], I’d done so much [solo] playing, it was really kind of weird: I’d done the Five Hole thing, I’d done these trips, I worked a little bit on my solo record. It was cool because it wasn’t like it was out of form, y’know, playing a big show like that or even the lead-up shows, which I was proud of. It was like, “Cool. Band breaks up, but…” It convinced me that music doesn’t die; it just exists in different forms.


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