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.


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