Thursday, February 27, 2020

Strange Animal, I've got to follow

Gowan at the Danforth Music Hall, Feb. 26, 2020.
Last night I went to see Gowan, 35 years after one of his shows at the Ontario Place Forum was my first live rock’n’roll experience. Both shows were amazing. And I owe Gowan an apology.

Twenty years ago I co-wrote a book about Canadian music of my youth, the years 1985-95. I’m very proud of it. It turned out to be influential on younger writers and musicians; people still mention it to me all the time. But the opening paragraph contains a sentence I’ve regretted the rest of my life:  

“Some would argue that the youth of the early 80s had no opinion of their country’s culture, but they most certainly did. They thought it sucked.”

I wrote that, as a 29-year-old, as a way of setting up the book’s thesis: that a new generation of punk-influenced Canadian music was poised to assert itself, standing apart from the heroes of the baby boom, classic rock, hair metal and vapid pop. A statement like that is necessary to establish a generational divide. But it’s also wildly incorrect.

In 1985, when I was in Grade 9, Rush were still massively popular. Bryan Adams and Corey Hart were bona fide, million-selling superstars. Platinum Blonde’s first album was thrilling. Some of those things were guilty pleasures for me for a while, but all that music has held up remarkably well—although you’ll forgive me if, after years of ubiquity, I never need to hear Adams’s music again.

Then there was Gowan.

In 1985, he released his second album, Strange Animal. Rob Quartly’s video for “A Criminal Mind” was incredibly vivid and captivating (its use of animation similar to, but not as extensive, as A-ha’s “Take On Me,” released the same year). The song was an odd single, to say the least: a first-person character narrative, a seven-minute piano epic in which the Linn drums don’t appear until almost the two-minute mark; when the real drums kick in at 3:23, it’s almost as powerful as Phil Collins’s entry on “In the Air Tonight.” But the lyric, the voice, the arrangement, and that melody all made it a smash hit. The whole album was recorded with Peter Gabriel’s band (bassist Tony Levin, drummer Jerry Marotta, guitarist David Rhodes); while undeniably rooted in a specific era, the album easily holds up due to the songs, the players and the performances.

Or… does it? I bring a lot of bias to this situation.

Strange Animal is very personal to me. Yeah, it’s a great record and that Ontario Place show remains one of the most exhilarating musical memories of my life. But Gowan, a Scottish-Canadian Catholic boy from Scarborough, means more than that to me, a Canadian with a Scot name who grew up Catholic in Scarborough—a block away from the Gowan family.

I didn’t know the Gowan family, but my classmate Mike Farr did; he lived next door. In Grade 7, Mike brought Gowan’s first album into class for show and tell. We were all star struck by proxy. I’d heard “Keep Up the Fight” on 1050 CHUM; I had just started clipping out the CHUM charts from the Toronto Star and pasting them on my bedroom wall, for whatever reason. We learned that Gowan had gone to the same elementary school as us, and probably had the ancient Mrs. Pereira for Grade 2, because she’d been there since the dawn of time. (Gowan is 15 years older than me.)

This made a huge imprint on this young music fan, along with the time that Bram—minus Sharon and Lois—played for my Grade 1 class before the release of the stone-cold classic One Elephant, Deux Elephants. Rock stars lived in our midst. The music that meant the most to us, music that could influence the rest of the country and the continent, could be made by that guy who came to play at our school or even the guy who went to our school.

1985: Strange Animal came out, and everyone went apeshit. The press loved the Peter Gabriel angle. The singles were all over radio. The video was played practically every day after school. Girls in my class started styling their hair like Gowan (shout out to Rochelle Smith, who was best at it). The guy was a star. And here’s the funny thing: he still went to our local church every Sunday with his family, where he’d be mobbed by teen girls. But that was our little Scarborough secret; can you imagine what that scene would be like in the days of Instagram?

June 1985: Gowan plays the Ontario Place Forum, a uniquely rotating stage by Toronto’s waterfront where admission was either free or minimal (it fluctuated during that decade), where anyone who showed up early enough could get a front-row seat. This venue would come to define my teenage years, as one of the rare all-ages venues a kid could see artists who usually played licensed venues. My friends and I showed up sometime around three in the afternoon, hours before show time. I have no idea what a bunch of 13- and 14-year-old squares did to fill that time. Doesn’t matter. When Gowan took the stage, he was nothing short of electrifying. High kicks. Leaping off his grand piano. Cool/ridiculous dance moves. Killer band, including brother Terry on bass (who might have been playing a Chapman stick, à la Tony Levin; I can’t recall exactly). Thousands upon thousands of screaming girls. It took us 90 minutes to get back to Scarborough by public transit, but we were buzzing all the way.

Flash forward 35 years. Several friends, both old and new, have somehow gone to see Gowan in recent years and raved about it. The man has been embracing his 80s legacy, rather than running from it. You can still call him Larry, but he’s going to play a lot of songs he released simply as Gowan. He’s been paying his bills for the last 20 years by performing with Styx ever since that band’s lead singer, Dennis DeYoung, bowed out for Broadway. I’ve never given two shits about Styx, but more power to him, I thought. Now I figured it was time for me to revisit the man who gave me my first rock’n’roll thrills. My friends all saw him play in secondary markets around the GTA; to my knowledge, he hadn’t had a big Toronto show. When this one was announced for the Danforth Music Hall, promoted by Massey Hall, tickets disappeared quickly. I didn’t think any more about it.

Yesterday afternoon I had an appointment on the Danforth and saw the marquee. Felt a slight pang. Later that day a friend posted about seeing the show in Belleville the night before, and she had nothing but rave reports. I checked StubHub; say what you will about the evils of authorized scalping, but three hours before showtime I was able to get a seat at the back of the hall for considerably less than cost. I was now going to see Gowan.


The pre-show music was all British new wave of the 80s: Level 42, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Big Country, Icicle Works. When was the last time you heard Icicle Works at full volume? In a public place, anyway. Other than some progeny, every person in the audience looked to be between 45 and 55. There was a very clear target demographic in play here.

When the lights came up on the stage, Gowan was perched on top of his keyboard, posed like Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid. I was somewhat disappointed when he didn’t leap off it with a high kick, but a) that would have been perilous, as the keyboard was on a rotating stand that allowed him to spin it at random points in the show; and b) then he wouldn’t have been able to begin the show with the cascading chords that of Strange Animal’s opening track, “Cosmetics.” That was following by “Walking on Air,” from the same record. Then “Awake the Giant,” which my teenage self figured out was about boners.

The man was in great form: vocally, physically. None of his charisma had faded over the years. That helped when the set then dipped into his 90s material, which I ignored completely at the time; hearing it now, it’s better than I thought it would be, but I don’t think I missed that much. “Keep Up the Fight” was a nice surprise. A cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” tacked on to the regrettable “Moonchild’s Psychedelic Holiday,” was not a nice surprise. Still, I’ll grant points for covering one of the least likely Beatles songs to hear live in 2020. The set closed with “Criminal Mind.” The ladies next to me were tempted to leave at intermission. “I guess that’s it!” one said. Another lady in front of them chimed in, “But ‘Strange Animal!’ ‘Moonlight Desires!’” Later, this same lady could be heard yelling to the stage: “I love you Gowan! Play more 80s! I love the 80s!”

That’s better than the schmuck who kept requesting “at least one Styx song!” “Here’s the deal,” Gowan finally responded. “When I play with Styx, I play Styx songs. When I play a Gowan show, I play with myself. No, wait…” He later threw the heckler a curveball by playing an instrumental piano piece he wrote for the most recent Styx record, which made every other rock’n’roll pianist I’ve ever heard sound like a classically ignorant chump. The guy has serious chops. [EDIT: I've since discovered he has a live solo piano record from 2008, and it's quite good; you can find it on streaming services.]

That’s the thing about watching veterans: if they’re still at it, they’re likely really fucking good at what they do. Music evolves and standards change, but there’s a lot to be said for watching really great performers with decades of experience play music that you struggle to pull off in your hobby cover band. I don’t go to see a lot of oldies acts, but when I do I’m rarely disappointed: it doesn’t matter if it’s Heart, Dolly Parton, Men Without Hats, Shadowy Men, you name it. Sure, no one is there to hear the new material, if there even is any. So what? I’ve certainly gone to see shows by legacy acts because I’m hoping they play something off an unusually good new album (Paul Simon, Tragically Hip), and I’m usually one of only 10 people in the audience with the same wish—and I leave somewhat disappointed. Last night I was there to hear Strange Animal. And Gowan delivered. He played seven of the album’s nine tracks.

Throughout, the veteran performer was warm, self-effacing and funny: “Here’s a song from 19—well, that says it all, doesn’t it, if the year starts with a 19.” Lots of Toronto and Scarborough jokes. Apparently guitarist Bob McAlpine, who played that Ontario Place gig in 1985, also grew up in my neighbourhood. Gowan poached his current drummer from Styx, and his keyboardist from his son’s metal band. MOR hit “All the Lovers in the World” sounded much better live than it does in my doctor’s office; the melody hasn’t left my head in the last 24 hours. The 90s songs in the second set fared better generally. Maybe it was because brother Terry changed into red pants and Gowan sported a kilt, or maybe I was just acclimatized by that point. After an excellent drum solo by Sucherman—that was nonetheless about 10 minutes too long—the second set closed with most of side two of Strange Animal, including the title track. He sent us on our way with “Moonlight Desires.” They haunt me, they haunt me. They weave a spell that puts me under.

The encore opened with Gowan alone at the piano, talking about how “one of the best things about growing up in this city is its history of great music,” before launching into a solo piano version of Rush’s “Limelight” and dedicating it to Neil Peart. Remember in 2016 how Bruce Springsteen paid live tributes to David Bowie and Prince? That’s how this felt to me, in 2020, to the Scarborough boy who’s now pushing 50. Yes, I got teary.


So: I’m sorry, Gowan. Sorry I subconsciously tried to write you out of Canadian musical history. There are a lot of 80s records I’m happy to leave buried under dust. Strange Animal has never been one of them, and nor will it be. I won’t wait another 35 years to see another Gowan show (and besides, you’d be 98). That first one changed my life, for which I’m eternally grateful.

Gowan plays in Richmond Hill on Feb. 29. He has a few Quebec dates, including Gatineau, in March, where he’ll probably play his Harmonium cover.

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