Thursday, June 02, 2011

Have Not Been the Same: Some party

Downie and myself at Hillside Festival, Guelph
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.

(photo by Carolyn Mill, taken at Hillside 2010)

I owe Gord Downie an apology.

The Tragically Hip frontman was one the most generous interview subjects in the book—once we finally got an interview with him and bassist Gord Sinclair, which wasn’t easy and took a several-pronged lobbying attempt. (Thank you, Chris Brown). Jason Schneider and I decided to tag-team the interview, even though the Hip are clearly Jason’s territory: he owned every bootleg recording and had travelled great distances to see them over the years, and he was the one writing the chapter about them.

For whatever reason, the only time we were able to get to speak to them was at a tour stop in Syracuse, New York. Downie was intrigued by the approach of the book, and that our questions seemed to be as much about his peers—the smaller acts that he had long championed and invited to open for the Hip—as it was about his own band. On stage that night, he introduced “Ahead by a Century” by calling it “Have Not Been the Same,” a reference that of course only two people in the upstate New York audience understood—and we were thrilled.

When it came time to ask someone famous to contribute a forward to a book written by three nobodies, Downie’s name was at the top of our list. Amazingly, he agreed. Much to the concern of the publisher, however, he decided to do so in the form of a poem.

A weird move, sure. But anyone who’s spent time with Downie, either verbally or in correspondence, will know that direct communication is not his strong point. He’s a poet by nature. He’s the same off-stage as he is on, in a way—those free-associative ramblings in the middle of and in between songs are really the way he thinks in everyday life. His wheels are constantly turning; his words are meticulously chosen, consciously working on several levels at once. As I got to know him—which was not much at all, really—the idea of him writing some linear essay about his experiences in Canadian music seemed ridiculous. So a poem it was, and a fine one
it was that suited the occasion .

Having Downie’s name on the front cover of our book was, of course, a huge coup. And it should have been enough. But then he went and hired some of our favourite musicians for his solo band, musicians who represented the scope of our book in many ways. Wouldn’t it be great if they all played our launch party?

And so we invited Julie Doiron and Dinner is Ruined, who were four-fifths of Gord Downie's Country of Miracles, to play our party at Lee’s Palace on September 29, 2001. We had other reasons to invite them: I was a big fan of Dinner is Ruined, featuring my favourite drummer in the world, Dave Clark; Doiron, of the late, great Eric’s Trip, represented the East Coast for the evening. Chris Brown and Kate Fenner—dear friends of mine, who Downie had asked to join the Hip on their most recent tour—had already volunteered to drive up from New York City just for the occasion. One of Downie’s personal heroes, Ian Blurton of Change of Heart, was also playing that night with his new band Blurtonia. How could he refuse?

Downie didn’t show, it turns out. I can’t blame him; I’m sure most people expected him to be there, and the very private rock star probably preferred to stay home with his family and avoid being mobbed.

And so I’d like to now publicly apologize to him for indirectly trying to trick him into playing our book launch.

As it turns out, we did have a secret special guest that night.

I discovered that my friend Carolyn Mark from Victoria happened to be in Toronto that week, and she agreed to play. (Her 2000 album Party Girl was one of my favourites at the time, and which featured plenty of CanRock Renaissance heroes like Sarah Harmer, Ian Blurton and Shadowy Men’s Brian Connelly). Mark pointed out that her good friend Neko Case was also going to be in Toronto the night of our launch, before a tour stop at the Horseshoe.

All I had to do was ask: Neko instantly agreed to be on the bill as well, as long as her name wasn’t advertised (so as not to take away from her Horseshoe show). It was a perfect fit: Neko not only got her start on Mint Records, which is discussed in the book, but she had just released an EP of Canadian covers of people like the Inbreds’ Mike O’Neill, Neil Young and Lisa Marr of Cub. Of course, she was amazing and generous and funny, onstage and off, as she always is, and I got to introduce her to my dad (who was a bit star-struck; he’s a huge fan of her 1997 debut, The Virginian).

At the time, there were actually some people upset that the secret guest was Neko Case, and not someone more famous, I suppose. Hopefully they’ve bought a few of her records since and realize how lucky they were to see her, especially when she covered Destroyer’s “No Ceasefires.” (Why she—or the New Pornographers—has yet to record that is beyond me.)

The surprise star of the night for many (not for me, an old fan) was Chris Brown and Kate Fenner. I’ve seen them probably a hundred times in almost every situation (from a tiny bar to Massey Hall), but that night they were electrifying. Their lyrics, which I had always found inspiring, took on extra resonance in those weeks after 9/11. They covered The Band’s “Tears of Rage” and The Tragically Hip’s “Scared.” They had the entire unruly, talkative audience suddenly captive. I’ve felt eternally in debt to them for their performance that evening.

The rest of the bill? Blurtonia was loud and proud and the ideal act to rile up a bill that consisted mostly of singer/songwriters. Carolyn Mark played what I think is one of the best Canadian songs of the 2000s, her own “Edmonton.” Dinner is Ruined provided some comic relief when they started riffing on my favourite negative review of the book, which had run in that week’s Now Magazine: “Ho-fucking-hum” (as it turns out, that makes a great chorus of a song). Michele Gould of Lava Hay introduced a new project. John Critchley of 13 Engines delivered what I believe was one of his last high-profile solo shows before he became an in-demand producer. Groovy Religion brought the spirit of Elvis Mondays to the event, and that band’s bassist John Borra represented the Handsome Ned tradition of Queen St. country music with his own band, featuring original Blue Rodeo drummer Cleave Anderson. (I also owe John Borra a public apology for scheduling the two acts he plays in as the evening’s bookends, making it a marathon for him.)

In many ways, it was a perfect bill, with many of our heroes from Victoria to Moncton sharing a stage together, from mid-’80s Queen St. lifers to late-’90s West Coast women who would help shape the coming decade. I don’t know what Downie was doing that night, but he could rest easy knowing that his peers were carrying the weight, that neither somebody’s book launch—nor the country’s c
ulture in general—needs to depend on any one superstar to show up in order to be a success.

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