Thursday, June 09, 2011

Have Not Been the Same: Grapes of Wrath

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.

Today I turn the blog over to one of my co-authors. To almost everyone I know, Ian A.D. Jack is the mystery man of our trio. Both Jason Schneider and myself are active writers, but even before Have Not Been the Same was first published in 2001, Ian Jack had shifted careers and become an elementary school teacher east of Toronto. Thus his status as "the other guy," which is certainly unfair, as he's worked as hard—if not harder—on this project as Jason and myself.

It was Ian who dove deep into the murky worlds of Skinny Puppy and Voivod, two bands we knew had to be in the book because of their importance and the way they fit into our thematic structure—and the fact they had great stories—but it's safe to say that none of us listened to much of their music. It was also Ian who had to navigate the tricky territory of Nettwerk Records, particularly the lawsuit brought against it by some of Sarah McLachlan's former collaborators. And it was Ian who, in this new edition, writes sympathetically and eloquently about the tragic life and death of the Nils' Alex Soria, a tragic story of shattered hopes and crippling addiction where several main characters often contradict each other—it's the part of the new edition that I'm most proud of.

So without further ado, Ian will now introduce you to the opening act at tomorrow night's launch party, Kevin Kane of the Grapes of Wrath.

My experience as a music fan is different from my co-authors, who grew up in or near Toronto, because my formative musical years took place in my seven years living in Thunder Bay, Ontario. In the pre-Internet, limited-cable '80s, Thunder Bay had CBC'S Video Hits, Good Rockin' Tonight and NBC'S Friday Night Videos, or Top 40 radio and local radio for music exposure. This meant beyond the international Top 40, Canadian music was pretty much dominated by Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Luba and Gowan. My mother loved folk artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, Joni Mitchell, the Mamas and the Papas and Ian & Sylvia, as well as ABBA; my dad was a massive fan of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. The common ground for both my parents was the Beatles.

When I wanted to take a chance on something outside of that safehouse, I went to the Thunder Bay Public Library. They had a vinyl collection that sparked my early love of Men Without Hats, Talking Heads and U2. I remember an album cover with three handsome young men with corkscrewed hair standing in front of a big house: Treehouse by the Grapes of Wrath. The cover intrigued me, but for some reason I never checked out the album. U2 pretty much owned 1987 and my Grade 9 year.

By the time I was 16, I had moved back to my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, a pretty town an hour east of Toronto on the 401 that was proximal enough to the big city to give me access to touring bands and more media outlets I was instantly enraptured by CFNY FM — the precursor to Edge 102.1 — and the CityTV/MuchMusic programming (City Limits, The New Music, and the MuchMusic Spotlight), all of which were unavailable to basic cable subscribers in Thunder Bay at the time. All of these media sources had a massive impact on my musical tastes. I fell in love with a slew of British bands – The Cure, Love and Rockets and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

The American underground was equally appealing – Pixies, R.E.M. and Sonic Youth. But I was still drawn to my early listening experiences from the nest: folk rock and pop rock laced in harmonies. In the late '80s, there were suddenly a number of Canadian bands incorporating these elements in their work that were equally cool to me as any bands on my international list: TPOH, the Northern Pikes, 54-40 and the Grapes of Wrath.

The Grapes of Wrath's third album, 1989's Now and Again, was introduced to me through a gorgeous, perfectly produced two and a half minutes acoustic single that was all over the aforementioned media outlets, as well as a respected friend heavily rotating the CD at weekend parties. Now and Again became a staple in my house, and not surprisingly, one of the new albums my mother also enjoyed. (The Forgotten Rebels “Surfin' On Heroin,” not so much.) I started learning the guitar at 16. Along with Beatles and U2 standards, it was the songs from Now and Again that I learned how to play—horribly, of course, but with just as much heart as for any of my other favourite songs.

Later that year, the Grapes of Wrath played Victoria Hall, the town hall in Cobourg. It was one of my first concerts, and the very first Canadian band I saw live. They played in the same space where I later attended high school proms and where I would eventually get married. It seemed so exotic to have these Canadian Rock Stars playing a town of 15,000 with the same passion and light show that you would see at one their bigger shows in Toronto or Vancouver.

My love for the band grew with the release of These Days, the fourth and final album for the first stage of the band’s career. Produced by John Leckie (Stone Roses, Radiohead) it arrived just as I finished high school and headed to university. I saw them a final time during my frosh week at McMaster University in Hamilton in 1992, and the band split acrimoniously by Halloween of that year after a (reportedly) incredible gig at the Commodore in Vancouver. As is history, Kevin was fired from his own band and the other three quarters of the band continued as Ginger. It was evident to any honest fan that Ginger would never measure up to the chemistry or legacy of the Grapes. Though bassist Tom Hooper is a gifted songwriter, Kevin's absence made it pretty clear what a prominent role he played in carving the band's sound, not to mention his talent as a songwriter. It would be years before I would get to hear anything from Kevin. This type of mystery only propels a music geek's curiosity. For years I would read music magazines, and later scour the Internet, with hopes that news would surface on a new project from Kevin.

When we started planning this project in 1997, we all had a wishlist of bands that we wanted to cover. The Grapes of Wrath's story was in my top three. The Grapes of Wrath were probably one of the few bands that we all enjoyed, but their story was mine to tell. I knew it was going to be a central thread in the Nettwerk chapter, but I had no idea what kind of involvement the members of the band would have in our project. At this time, Ginger had folded, and Kane had kept a very low profile working in a guitar factory, finally releasing a sparse and melancholic acoustic solo album, and producing some material from Zumpano's debut album, Look What The Rookie Did. Lawsuits between the two parties were still active, and my interview a year earlier with former keyboardist Vincent Jones was like pulling teeth, clouded partly because of the reality of litigation.

I finally managed to contact Kevin online. After five years of being out of the spotlight, he released his first solo album. We traded some emails while I was finishing up my teaching degree in Kingston. He informed me he was hesitant to engage in a phone interview, and preferred either an email interview or in person. I knew that I would need the latter in order to really find a central voice in the book. My wife and I decided to go on a cross-Canada voyage after I graduated, and beyond experiencing the country together and visiting friends and family, my mission was to make it to Vancouver and Salt Spring Island to interview former members of the Grapes of Wrath.

When we got to Banff, Alberta, I received a call for a job interview back in Ontario. I flew home from Calgary leaving my wife to drive across British Columbia on her own. We briefly considered aborting our trip in Alberta, but reaching Vancouver was too important.

Two days later I met my wife at the Vancouver airport. We took a ferry to Salt Spring Island — spotting a pod of orcas, of course — and I spent a sunny afternoon interviewing Kevin's former bandmate Tom Hooper and Hooper's partner, Suzanne Little, formerly of Lava Hay. (Later in Vancouver, I would also interview Little's former bandmate, Michele Gould – another musician I am grateful to for providing an amazing interview and helping us launch the 2001 edition of our book with a great performance.)

I was shocked to hear from Hooper that the estranged bandmates were on speaking terms and contemplating playing music together again. Hooper spoke with regret about time that had been wasted, and admitted that their musical chemistry had been greatly missed. He also cited that both of them had sons the same age, and having children had brought a lot into perspective for him.

My interview with Kane, however, was up in the air. After a couple of uncomfortable phone calls trying to settle on a date and location (I only had four days in Vancouver), Kevin agreed to meet me at the Arts Club Lounge on Granville Island. He looked me up and down and admitted that he felt uneasy about revisiting the past. I assured him I was approaching this project as a fan and I was looking to tell a balanced story. After the first few ice-breaking questions, Kane relaxed somewhat, and provided me an interview that music journalists dream about getting when they're writing a big story. Over two hours, we talked about his entire history with the Grapes, his relationship with Nettwerk, his views on media and the Canadian music industry. He was candid, well-spoken and all three authors agree he owns some of the best quotes in our book. His voice appears throughout some of the essay chapters and he is essential part of the Nettwerk story.

I'm not sure why Kane trusted me. I was persistent over a year in my hunt for an interview, and he knew that I drove across the country (in part) to talk to him. He knew I wasn't a typical journalist hunting for a sensationalist story.

I asked him to sign a journal of mine, a fanboy tradition I've continued with my interview subjects. Kane smiled at the request, and drew a self-portrait reading the future book with an exclamation point over his head. A year and a half later, I informed him that we had scored a publishing deal with ECW. I sent him periodic emails updating him and eventually sent him a published copy of the original. He admitted the time when we spoke was a difficult period for him, but that he had come to a better place and hoped his past interview didn't screw up his present. I am sure that reading one's history — especially one such as his — is not easy. It is my utmost hope that our book celebrates his work and his life and that this revised version reminds him how important his story is.

While we were writing the original edition of Have Not Been The Same, Hooper and Kane produced another album, the very respectable Field Trip in 2000, and briefly toured before parting again. After a pair of solo albums each, they began playing acoustic shows together again; Chris Hooper, Tom's brother and original Grapes drummer, rejoined the band in 2010, making it a reunion of the original trio. Though none of the members felt they had anything to add to the original story during our revisions, the burying of the hatchet and reunion of the original trio provided a wonderful conclusion to their tale in our book. Last November, the Grapes of Wrath played a triumphant show at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, and continue to remind people why they're a beloved Canadian band with a celebrated songbook that has been important to me for over 20 years. I know I am not the only one that feels that way.

The Hooper brothers still reside in British Columbia, thus making it hard to have the Grapes of Wrath play our launch party, but Kevin Kane now lives in Toronto and accepted our invitation to play. It is a great honour for me to have one of my favourite voices and songwriters be a part of the evening.

Ian A.D. Jack

1 comment:

Paul Mora said...

One of the best concerts I'd ever attended was the Grapes of Wrath at the Concert Hall (Masonic Temple). I'd just finished my last exam of my frosh year at McMaster, hopped on a bus to downtown, and headed straight for the show. Their performance was spectacular.