Monday, May 30, 2011

Have Not Been the Same: My story

Later this week, Have Not Been the Same, the 10th anniversary revision/reissue, should be on bookstore shelves across the country. The launch party is Friday, June 10 at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, featuring Weeping Tile, King Cobb Steelie and Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath (tickets available from Soundscapes, Rotate This and Ticketmaster).

Between now and the date of the launch party, Radio Free Canuckistan will provide a series of insights into the origin of the book, what went into the reissue, and everything you never knew you wanted to know about the project.

Chapter one: Living my life in the tower of song.

In Peter Guralnick’s biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis, he writes about how Memphis DJs were dismissive of early Elvis recordings. After all, how good could this guy possibly be when he lives just up the street?

There is a romance to art made outside of your experience, especially growing up in a cultural colony like Canada was in the ’70s, obsessed with the American and British influences that have shaped our country since its inception.

But as a kid, I was always fascinated instead by Canadian culture—maybe in part because everyone always seemed so defensive about it, if they weren’t being outright dismissive. “That guy’s Canadian, you know,” would be the inevitable adjunct to a mention of anyone famous who happened to be born here. Stories in the Toronto Star and Maclean’s would go out of their way to mention any remote connection that Cultural Icon X had to Canada (his sister-in-law grew up in Vancouver!).

Canadian culture was painfully insecure about its own worth, which, as someone who always sympathized with underdogs, made it fascinating to me.

For anyone born in the ’70s, however, Canadians ruled the world for kids: Dennis Lee poems, records by Raffi and Sharon Lois & Bram (Bram played at my elementary school when I was in Grade 1), the Kids of Degrassi Street and Anne of Green Gables on television.

By the time I was a pre-teen glued to my radio, I was curious about all the Canadian acts I was hearing—especially hearing them after 10 p.m., all grouped together, for reasons I later realized was radio’s way of fulfilling their CanCon requirements to make way for more foreign hits during prime hours. But while I loved many of those acts (Martha and the Muffins, Payolas, Blue Peter, Rough Trade), they didn’t seem to register with any of my friends.

As a Scarborough boy, that all changed with Gowan. I grew up literally around the corner from him; he had gone to my elementary school (St. Barbara’s) and still went to my church (St. Thomas More) when he became a massive star of the video age (CITY-TV’s after-school show Toronto Rocks played “A Criminal Mind” about three times a week). Everyone I knew loved Strange Animal. Both boys and girls in my Grade 9 classes styled their hair like him. The fact he had Peter Gabriel’s band on his album was a big deal. His smirk was irresistible and cheeky for 14-year-olds like me. His live show—my first rock concert ever, at the Ontario Place Forum in June 1985—was incredible, especially when he leapt off the top of his grand piano.

Unlike those Memphis DJs and their attitude toward Elvis, I was thrilled that the guy who lived up the street turned out to be a rock star. Of course, it turned out that Gowan was only ever a rock star in Canada; the rest of the world didn’t care. That illustrated a narrative I saw played out all too often in my adolescence: on many levels, if you were successful only in Canada, you weren’t perceived as being truly successful. There was something suspicious about you, like maybe you only ever made it because of CanCon rules or sympathy or because your uncle owns a few radio stations.

Who cares? I found Canadiana exotic in its own way, like secrets that not even most Canadians seemed to know about, never mind the rest of the world. And though many of those acts were certainly derivative, many were unique: no one else on the pop charts sounded like Rough Trade, for example, and Carole Pope was far more explicit and daring and subversive than Madonna.

(Our women in particular presented a diversity of images simply not found elsewhere: gutsy belters like the ladies in Toronto and the Headpins, artsy weirdos like Jane Siberry and Dalbello, genre-bending feminist bands like the Parachute Club, even metal chicks like Lee Aaron. What did the rest of the world offer at that point in terms of strong women in pop music, other than Pat Benatar, Kate Bush and Cyndi Lauper? But I digress.)

In Grade 9, my speech for English class was about Canadian music and how great it is and how it doesn’t get enough respect. Ah, prophecy.

During high school, most of my favourite concert experiences were at the Ontario Place Forum, an outdoor summer venue with a rotating (!) in-the-round stage, which held about 10,000 people (2,500 seated, the rest on the lawn)—which was about as intimate an all-ages venue got at that time. It was also cheap; if I recall, tickets were usually included in the $5 park admission price (this changed later on). Between 1985 and 1995, it was there that I saw the Spoons, Doug and the Slugs, David Wilcox, Bruce Cockburn, Crash Vegas, Grapes of Wrath, 54.40, The Tragically Hip, Skydiggers, Spirit of the West, Rock and Hyde, Blue Rodeo, Sarah McLachlan, and, shortly before the venue closed in 1995, a CFNY event featuring Lowest of the Low, Rheostatics, Shadowy Men, Change of Heart, 13 Engines and many others. I loved all sorts of music from all around the world, but the shows I saw at the Forum made Canadian music come alive for me every summer, gave me an immense sense of national pride watching these acts perform before adoring audiences, and are a huge part of why I ended up co-writing this book.

The first bar show I ever attended was a Deja Voodoo BBQ at the Siboney Club in Kensington Market. I was 16 and had grown a beard for this express purpose. I went alone; my friends either a) didn’t have beards or b) didn’t know or care about the freak show of garage bands from across the country that comprised the Og Records roster, as heard on the It Came From Canada compilations and on CBC Radio’s Brave New Waves, of which I was a devout listener.

I thought this was going to be a huge show that I’d have to get there super-early for. I showed up at 6 p.m. The doors weren’t even open. No one else was there except bands schlepping gear. I came back an hour later, was one of the first people admitted into the club, and slowly sipped what I considered to be an overpriced glass of Coke for about an hour before the first band started. I struck up an awkward conversation with Deja Voodoo’s Gerard Van Herk, asking him something about Brave New Waves’ Brent Bambury—my first rock star encounter. I can’t remember who played which of the two BBQs I saw at the Siboney (1988, 1989), but I saw Deja Voodoo (obviously), the Gruesomes, Shadowy Men, UIC, E.J. BrulĂ©, Jerry Jerry, the Ten Commandments and other Og staples up close, closer than I’d ever been to the blood and sweat of rock’n’roll. I was hooked.

I moved to Guelph in 1990 to attend university there. Why Guelph? Honestly, because it was close to Toronto and I could come home and not miss any concerts there. Also, I’d read about the Albion Hotel being a popular spot for all the Queen Street musicians to play. At the student newspaper, the campus radio station and an alt-weekly serving southwestern Ontario (Id Magazine), I almost exclusively covered Canadian artists.

People like the Rheostatics and Bob Wiseman and King Cobb Steelie became heroes of mine, broadening my mind, challenging my perceptions of both music and the industry, and I hold their recordings dear to me to this day. I’m hard pressed to think of many ’90s acts, other than Bjork, whom I cherish the way I do those three artists in particular. They were very much underdogs in the broader sense: beloved by many, but completely obscure to most.

It felt like an intensely creative time, a time that was rewriting the rules, a time that existed in a whole other universe than the “alternative” scene sweeping the States or the Madchester scene in the U.K. Who was going to document it in anything more than an ephemeral manner? Who was going to stand up and say that these were fascinating artists making classic albums? Canada was full of secret histories already; this one shouldn’t slip by.

By the end of the ’90s, I knew that I had to write a book. Two friends of mine had a similar idea, and here we are.


Colin Medley said...

Thanks for sharing Michael. It's a little eerie how similar some of my experiences and feelings growing up were to yours (though I couldn't grow a beard at 16, still can't at 23, and instead of the Forum I had the Opera House, the Molson Amphitheater, and afternoon shows at Lee's Palace). Does this mean I'll be writing a book ten years down the line? Maybe, but in the meantime I've already started going through all the stuff I've accumulated over the last 10 years of going to local shows and I'm making some tentative plans for some sort of retrospective. Somebody's got to do it.

I'm looking forward to re-reading your book!!!

Kelly said...

Honestly Michael, if I didn't think you were so fantastic already, this article would be the catalyst for adoration!

So much of your article is my experience with Canadian music. I was enamoured of any Cancon and my highschool friends, predominantly male, only listened to the Cult. They added the word 'cheese' to any Canadian band that I tried to interest them in (with the obvious exception of the Tragically Hip) Examples included: Blue Cheese, Sky Cheese, The Pursuit of Cheese, Spirit of Cheese, Northern get the idea. Later examples included Change of Cheese and Rheocheese.

I saw U2 at the CNE in October of 1987 but a month later saw 54:40 at The Concert Hall. I saw the future unfold for me.....small(ish) venue, Canadiana. There was the summer of the revolving stage -- every week was a different Canadian band, all the ones you listed, I think I was at every one. Even the Wild Strawberries.

(this is the point where I must make the admission that my first concert (after Raffi and Sharon, Lois and Bram and other such school field trips to Seneca College) was in 1983 to see Cory Hart.)

For my grade 12 music class, I invented an independent project for myself (I needed extra marks 'cause I really struggled with sight reading) -- comb NOW magazine for underage shows at small venues, write reviews. Among other things, I attended what was billed as New Adults on the Block and discovered that it was The Pursuit of Happiness incognito. Ahhh Moe. How I loved you for that.

I wasn't really listening to the edgy, truly cool Canadian scene. I appreciated it, but give me jangly guitar and some sweet lyrics and my heart soars. Lowest of the Low......I wanted to go to the Only and drink until my kidneys failed or kiss someone blind on Bathurst Street at two. It was King Kobb Steelie that made me I fall in love with a bass line.
Looking forward to rereading -- love the new cover.