Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Whoop, there it is.

Last night, on the bus, I saw a kid, maybe 8-years-old. He had a whoopee cushion in his hands, and a first aid kit strapped around his waist like fanny pack. He was clearly an experienced prankster.
He was riding the bus with what appeared to be his mother and what appeared to be his older brother. I say appeared to be, because I feel a sense of responsibility to this guy. Maybe it was an aunt and a cousin, maybe just people he knew. The point is, I don't know who these people are, where they were going, or what the series of events were that led to this kid riding the bus with a whoopee cushion and a first aid kit.
I wanted to say something to him, maybe bump his knuckles, ask him his story. I wanted to find out what he was gonna do with the whoopee cushion and why he decided he'd better bring along a first aid kit.
I never had a whoopee cushion of my own. When I was 7, maybe 8--no older because it happened in the house on 24th Street, and we moved from there the summer after my eighth birthday--my sister brought home a whoopee cushion from one of her trips downtown with her friends to get jelly shoes and Rick Springfield albums.
As a child, I was in love with downtown and I was in love with whoopee cushions. How could I not have been, when I read so many comic books?
At that point, mostly Marvel's Star Wars and Indiana Jones mags picked up at the 7-11, but my dad had lately started bringing me along to Westgate Books, at the far end of 22nd, just before Circle Drive, in the same ell-shaped stripmall as Duffers indoor minigolf, on his semi-regularly paperback-hunting excursions. Westgate, those first few trips especially, was the best place in the world (even though it wasn't downtown). It had shelves and tables overflowing with books, but it still managed to feel fairly open, unlike the smaller used bookstores in older buildings, which in their crampedness would later seem to me beguiling and romantic. Along the windowfront, facing the huge parking lot, were two rows of probably a dozen columns of comics. I would make my way through top row and then double back through the floor level boxes. Each comic had its cover-price halved (to the nearest nickel) in black grease-marker on the cover. Forty-cent comics, like the brilliant late 70s Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics--written by Denny O'Neil, with art by Alex Saviuk--were 20 cents, but so were the earlier, Mike Grell-drawn issues with a 35-cent cover price.

I didn't even know, back then, about O'Neil's earlier run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, with art by Neal Adams. Those comics didn't end up in the bins at Westgate, or if they did, they were picked up by keener hands than mine.
At that time, standard cover price for new comics was 75-cents, so single issues at Westgate topped out at 40-cents. You could get a lot of comics for just a few dollars, and I did. Merely from repeat, obsessive visits to the Westgate bins, I managed to secure nearly a complete run of Green Lantern comics, from the 1976 relaunch to just shy of the current issue (along with considerable chunks of the Cary Bates/Carmine Infantino Flash run, Jim Aparo-drawn Batman team-ups in The Brave & the Bold and DC's great anthology "Dollar Comics" of the 70s, Adventure and World's Finest (which often featured Green Arrow in solo action drawn by the dynamic Trevor Von Eeden!). It wouldn't be until 1988, during the Millennium crossover event that I even thought of buying new comics, and about a year after before I realized there were stores that actually specialized in selling new comics.

Our visits to Westgate were hardly regular, though I remember needling both of my parents to take me there much more often than they actually did (the nerve!).
The 1970s were not so distant then, though I had no memory of them. My earliest memories are almost certainly from 1980, just prior to my brother Jesse's arrival. I remember Mayfair Playschool and my grandparents' acreage near Martensville--more than anything, I remember the Sunday night drives back into Saskatoon from the acreage: approaching headlights, the Husky gas station high above the highway near the overpass, a warm feeling sitting in there in the backseat, drifting off to sleep.
The stories in the comics from the 70s weren't that different from the more recent ones, mostly by the same handful of people (some of them still active today), but the ads from those older comics were amazing! Daisy air rifles, Lee Jeans, and Slim Jims seemed quite exotic and alluring. They presented an ideal of boyhood as outdoorsy and violent. Some of the oldest comics I picked up still had black & white ads for Charles Atlas self-improvement pamphlets and backpage, full-colour ads for Sea Monkeys. But the best ads I loved best were those cluttered paste-up jobs with tiny print and crude drawings, promising SEE BEHIND GLASSES, Scary Life-Size MONSTER GHOST, LEARN HYPNOTIC CONTROL, and of course, the fabulous whoopee cushion (occasionally sold as "POO-POO CUSHION", see above). These presented an ideal of boyhood that was urban, puerile and violent.
I could never screw up the courage to clip out the order form and send 35-cents off to obscure New York addresses that you never read about like Lynbrook or Westbury. It wasn't so much that I thought of even one of my comics as a valuable collector's item (despite the fact that some of them had those very words emblazoned across their covers) and didn't want to defile them as that, well, I recognized that these were old comics. There were no whoopee cushion ads in the Green Lantern comics by Len Wein and Dave Gibbons--my favourite era of the character, I might add. Those issues had ads for Dungeons & Dragons sets, primordial video games like Joust and Revell modelling kits, distractions of a very different kind of comic fan than I was or would ever be. These old ads, selling novelties and self-improvements, even by the 70s were throwbacks to the earliest days of comic books. The mighty M.C. Gaines--inventor of the saddle-stitched, four-colour, newsprint comic book, and father of Mad Magazine founder Bill Gaines--was, at the time of his inspiration, an out-of-work novelty salesman.
When my sister brought this whoopee cushion, this most sacredly vulgar item from the back pages of the comics that fired my imagination, I was beside myself.
"Let me try it!"
But my sister and her friend would have none of it. It was theirs and they were under no obligation to share with me.
I waited for them to be distracted by their new Rick Springfield record and then I took it! I held the flaccid pink rubber to my lips, inflated the cushion and threw it down on the nearest chair. My sister and her friend were sitting on the floor.
"Can I offer you a seat?" I asked, failing to conceal even a single manic twitch of zeal. They rolled their eyes.
I waited.
Maybe someone else would come into the living room.
No one did.
I couldn't take it anymore! I needed to see--to hear--the whoopee cushion in action. I sat on it myself.
I stoop up, looked down at it. It was still perfectly inflated. I sat down again.
I stood up. I looked around. I sat down again, as hard as I could.
I got up, the cushion had deflated, but had failed to make the appropriately flatulent noise. I brought it back to my lips.
"I hope you're not going suh-lobbering all over my whoopee cushion!"
Even as I blew, I could hear the air being released from the cushion. I looked it over, and, sure enough, there was a big rip in the seam. I had popped the whoopee cushion.
I was a failure as a kid! For generations, kids had been pulling genius pranks with whoopee cushions, eliciting demoralizing fart sounds from the pompous and the strict! Bullies could be brought to their knees with a single blast! But its power was beyond my capabilities. As a kid, I was incompetent.
I stayed away from whoopee cushions for many years after that, confused and saddened by my seeming inability to make use of that most basic element of boyhood mischief. It didn't occur to me until much later on in life that whoopee cushions were simply cheaply-made from flimsy material. I should have been surprised and disappointed if the damn thing hadn't burst.
So when I saw this kid on the bus, with his whoopee cushion (I understand they're self-inflating now) and first aid kit and a barely-contained glimmer of danger in his eye, I recognized him as a fellow traveller. Hail fellow well met, I thought as I passed him on my to the door, and our paths diverged. Me, back into the night toward home and adult responsibilities; him, onto great feats of artificial flatulence.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hipsters, Craftsmanship & Lattes: the Sinister Spectre of Elitism

ITEM!: As an incumbent Tory who lost his rural Saskatchewan seat in the last federal election to elect a right wing majority government, John Gormley knows about "the relentless pursuit of mediocrity." After careers in politics and law stalled out, Gormley came to rest as the media mouthpiece for the Saskatchewan Party in 1998, one year after the right wing coalition party's formation.
Gormley has regularly used his Rawlco Radio bully pulpit (as well as a weekly column in the StarPhoenix) to bash gays, immigrants, women, unions and liberals. He supports the pro-business lobby and the social conservatives by creating an atmosphere of antagonism, a false binary of "Us and Them". In short, the dude is full bag, equal parts scum and douche.
In his new book, what looks like a paranoid screed against the provincial NDP, he unleashes a fresh assault that finely illustrates what how out of touch he really is. On page 17 of Left Out (is he sad because he feels unwelcome or is he using the term as an imperative?), he refers to liberals as "latte-sipping" and "Birkenstock-wearing". FOR REAL. Because only communists can drink fancy coffees. That's why Starbucks has become an international symbol of leftist thought and the people's victory over free market capitalism. Welcome to 1991, John, we have received your fax!

ITEM!: Gaspereau Press keeps its cool in the wake of Giller win. Several things are at play here: 1) Gaspereau, in refusing to adapt their process to meet the swelling demand for Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists, takes a stand for the value of books as objects and the power of those objects as containers of art. 2) The Sentimentalists is widely available as an e-book, and that, undeniably, is where publishing is headed. 3) Gaspereau says they'll fill orders for indie booksellers first, who supported the book before it was a winner. What it means: Creating a successful book (by any definition) in Canada is not dependent on the current bookselling infrastructure.

ITEM!: I think this dude is calling me a hipster. First of all, awesome. Hipsters are rad. I know a lot of people who seem to be stereotypical hipsters who are fantastic people engaged in creative work that serves their community. I think it's great that young people today feel free to wear stupid clothes and grow ugly mustaches. Takes a lot of pressure of me. Second of all, the comment poster seems to be equating hipsterism with a fetishization of the obscure, and vain elitism of exclusion. Frankly, I don't see that at all. I see an appreciation of the paradox that is Lou Reed, someone who has managed to turn his most subversively iconic song into an advertising jingle and yet remains an symbol of integrity in the music biz.

mp3: "Three's Company" by Arabesque featuring Maylee Todd
mp3: "Lifetime of Deception" by Masonic

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Rock Shirts Draped My Torso in Leaner Years

You'd think I would learn.
I've written a lot of stuff since that day in July, 1997 when I walked in to the prairie dog offices and told them I was a writer. They were fool enough to believe me, and that's how it started. Probably 90 per cent of what I've written has not been about me--except when it secretly was about me--and that's for the best. In writing about other people (mostly short profiles of musicians), I learned a lot, about writing, about the world, and about myself. That's been great. Even though I don't take on as many assignments as I used, I still use arts journalism as an excuse to chat up people who do interesting things, like Richard Rosenbaum (editor of Can't Lit) or queer cinema legend Bruce LaBruce. These gigs are great because they're interesting, they're fairly easy to do, and they pay. I hear back on them sometimes. Mostly just, oh, you know, I saw that you wrote this, or I started to read this. That kind of thing.
But the stuff I really hear back on, the stuff that people write me long, moving emails about is, y'know, the other stuff. Where I reveal more of myself or write about something I care about. Which is, I don't know, pretty fucking great.

"The things you do for love are gonna come back to you one by one."

I took a class last year. It was an adult education freelance writing class at Langara College. I hadn't written anything other this blog in about three years at that point. I was really into David Sedaris and the idea of being, I dunno, a personal essayist. Is that what he is? Nicole has loved Sedaris for a long time, even suggested Hugh as a name when we didn't know we were having a daughter, but for whatever reason, I was quite late to become fond of him. But that's what I wanted to get out of this class, I wanted to be David Sedaris. That's the way I get when I like a writer. I don't just want to read them and learn from them. I want to BE THEM. Kerouac, Brautigan, Hemingway, Meltzer, Thompson, Ames, Richler, Hiaasen, Ronson, Willeford--I have to work through these embarrassing periods of pathetic poseurdom and then, I cast off their skin and become me again, but a little bit (I hope) has stuck. It's a terrible way to exist, but it's my process and I'm too old to change now.
I didn't learn how to be David Sedaris, but I did get back in the habit of writing regularly, and I got some good advice and encouragement. The instructor was Mette Bach, who released her first book this summer, the very excellent Off the Highway: Growing Up in North Delta.

My point is that I got some great feedback from my Lou Reed t-shirt piece and some of my recent blog posts. People like me! People like to read about things I care about writing! I got one fantastic note from Maryanna Hardy, who went to Grade 8 with me at Georges Vanier (says Nicole: "Is that the school you went to after you got kicked out of the school where everyone beat you up?") in Saskatoon. Like Mette, Maryanna is releasing her first book this year. You can see the poster for the book launch in Montreal next Friday above. You should check out her blog for more of her illustrations and, of course, buy her book, So I've Been Told.

So, I'm going to write more (probably mostly here) about stuff that matters to me, like rock shirts and Superman and being a dad.

mp3: "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" by Andre Ethier (live)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What I've been up to lately

  • Some advice for the kids going back to school.
  • Rae Spoon has a new album and it is essential.
  • I attended a Geist Magazine writing workshop led by Sheila Heti. The workshop was about making fiction from real life, and I don't know. I'm glad I went. I really enjoyed the passage Heti read from How A Person Should Be, her upcoming novel, and it was nice to devote a morning to thinking about writing. So yeah, I'm still bummed out about the Boyden workshop.
  • I did about seven minutes of stand-up at Guilt & Company, a chic Gastown bar that has really excellent improvised music on the nights it doesn't have comedy. The comedy night, Guilt & Comedy (obviously) is run by Kate Lumsdon and Lauren Martin and probably has a Facebook page or something. Despite not having been on stage in about five years, I felt really good about my set and would totally do it again if they asked (HINT, HINT).
  • Drag City has reissued Cats & Dogs, my favourite 1993 Royal Trux album.

mp3: "The Flag" by Royal Trux
mp3: "Death by Elektro" by Rae Spoon

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Haters gonna hate.

Somebody asked me once, when I was still writing for the newspaper, how it felt to write down to a fifth-grade reading level.
I didn't punch the guy for two reasons. One, he was a friend of a friend. Two, do you know me at all?
Now, I've got nothing against academics, post-modernists and other assorted eggheads, but, likewise, I've got nothing against readers. Writing in plain, everyday, accessible language isn't the cakewalk some might think. Especially when, as many newspaper reporters do, you deal with such enemies of clear language as politicians and public relations officers.
Roy Peter Clark tells us to use shorter words, sentences and paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity. We write because we have a desire to communicate. We've got something to say, and we hope somebody's gonna get it when we do.
That's why I can get behind the sentiment of Steven W. Beattie's essay from last year, "Fuck Books", if not the method of delivery. Beattie, along with Alex Good, got people talking about Canadian books this week with a pair of posts at the National Post's The Afterword blog. The overrated list filed similar complaints against the abuse of poetics in CanLit as Beattie's "Fuck Books" and, I don't know, is it open season on poets again?
I don't read enough CanLit to enter too deeply into the debate on this one, but I do worry all the fucking time that this novel I'm writing isn't CanLit enough, doesn't meditate lushly enough on a tableau of tapestries, either ironically or earnestly, doesn't distill through a fractured lens the frissons of post-colonial metaphors. And then sometimes I worry that it does all of these things just a little too much. Mostly, though, I remind myself how inadequately I've fared whenever I've tried to fit in. I remind myself of Herbie Popnecker, and what he told JFK. And I wage on.
mp3: "Liv Tyler" by Roadside Graves
mp3: "Everything" by Roadside Graves

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Boring people

"Only boring people can be bored," my Eighth Grade teacher used to say. About four years ago, I saw those words postered on a wall just outside Blood Alley every night during a string of graveyard shifts in one of Canada's most notorious slums*.
It wasn't the first time since 1991 I had reason to think of Mr. C, and it wasn't the most recent. How do you not constantly go back to the lessons you learned when you were 13? Inside and out of the classroom, that's when we shrugged off the final crumbs of our childhood and learned how to walk in adult bodies. It's when we got our first glimmers of having to take some responsibility for ourselves and when we were lucky, we got a hint of the power that lay in that responsibility.
And we were lucky.
Mr. C told us that he became a teacher because Education was the last thing you could get into at the University of Saskatchewan after you'd flunked out of everything else. He'd briefly been a punk rocker in his youth, he said, until he realized that you couldn't be a punk rocker if you were riding around Moose Jaw in your parents' stationwagon.
Mr. C ran a music appreciation class where we would bring in our own music, play a song and then the class would talk about it, with Mr. C usually schooling us on why the music we liked wasn't as cool as we thought it was, but not in a condescending way. During one class someone (it might have been me, but I don't think it was) played "Kiss Off" by the Violent Femmes. Mr. C asked for a show of hands if we liked it. All hands up. He asked for a show of hands if we identified with the lyrics of the song. Again, all hands up. I still don't know what to make of that moment, when I realized that all of my classmates, to some degree, felt the same as I did: alienated, shunned, hopeless--even the ones who made me feel that way.
Our school canceled the Valentine's Day dance that year because it fell during Lent. Our class try to reason with Mr. C. "Isn't Christian sacrifice meaningless," our class posed, "when the one making the sacrifice doesn't have a choice?"
"Yeah," I agreed. "If we have to give up dancing, you should have to give up something you enjoy...like music!"
"I'm way past enjoying music. I do it because I have to," Mr. C answered, and we were reminded that the forces that ruled us were often ambivalent.
Mr. C later confided in me that he was just being tough, he still enjoyed music. And, y'know, I was young and naive, but not that naive.
At the beginning of the school year, Mr. C told us that despite what we may have heard about him, we shouldn't get our hopes up. He'd turned 30 over the summer and his good years were over, he said.
I'm older now than Mr. C was when he taught me so much. I wonder how much of his Weltschmerz was a put-on and I wonder how thick he lays it on now.
Mr. C turns 50 today. Happy birthday to one of the coolest people I've ever met. If you're entering his class this fall, I hope he promises the same to you that he did to us, and I hope he keeps that promise in the same way.

mp3: "Summer Nights Lakeside" by Gospel Claws
mp3: "Visions of You" by Modern Superstitions

*in case the face that I was working in a place called "Blood Alley" didn't make that clear enough

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The record-buying public shouldn't be voting.

Kathryn Calder's debut album shares a name with my second favourite P.D. Eastman book. You can read my review of Are You My Mother? here.
And because I know that most of you reading this blog are completists when it comes to record reviews written by yours truly, here's one I did a few issues back on the Mohawk Lodge's new album Crimes.

mp3: "Arrow" by Kathryn Calder
mp3: "Bad News" by the Mohawk Lodge

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Awwww crap!, part two in a series

I heard the news today, oh boy (yesterday actually).
Regina's Polymaths are calling it quits for quite legitimate, life-goes-on reasons. I haven't even heard their only album, Home Again, so I'm not, y'know, heartbroken. That doesn't mean it's not a loss for music fans and for a Regina pop scene that has surely matured in my absence.
Their 2008 EP, So Long, Castle Road, pleased me in so many ways: It's smart, catchy pop full of local references.
I'm pretty sure I first learned of their existence by reading Pat's Sound Salvation Army blog, so props to him, and props to Polymaths. If you're in Regina on Thursday night, go pay your respects at O'Hanlon's.

mp3: "Wrecking Ball's Kiss" by Polymaths
mp3: "Strike" by Polymaths

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Awwww, crap!

Here's how things were supposed to go:
I show up with my moderately wonderful second draft tucked under my arm. Perhaps I am wearing a tweed coat with suede patches, perhaps I am not. It is mid-October, the weather could go either way.
I am cordial with Joseph Boyden, perhaps even a bit shy, as I often am with people I admire. But I make an quiet mention of how his Moosenee characters in Through Black Spruce have similar speech patterns to some of the characters (especially Antoine Batiste) in Treme, which is set in the place where Boyden mostly lives now, New Orleans. He realizes I am a perceptive reader, and he begins to form a genuine interest in reading my manuscript. He tells me stories about the people he knows who inspired characters on Treme, and I dazzle him with my arcane knowledge of Clark Johnson, who hasn't been on Treme, but was on the final season of The Wire, which Boyden still hasn't watched at this point, and his interest in my novel grows as my eyes widen when I talk about the scene in Homicide: Life On The Street where Johnson's character, Detective Meldrick Lewis, allows his strained marriage to finally collapse under the weight of a black-velvet painting of Teddy Pendergrass.
"So what's your novel about, anyway?" he asks.
I explain to him that it started out as your typical vaguely-autobiographical, grudge-settling first novel, but grew into something else. Inspired in equal parts by Jonathan Ames's first novel I Pass Like Night (as well its direct influence, The Catcher in the Rye), Walter Mosley's first Socrates Fortlow book Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned and Jack Kirby's 18 issues of Mister Miracle comics.
Boyden doesn't quite get all the references, but his wife, Amanda, who is co-presenting the retreat, says, "You watch a lot of HBO, don't you, Emmet?"
So they read the damn thing, the beast I've been working on not-quite-as-steadily-as-I'd-like since January, when I registered for the retreat. They like, it shows promise. "There are some really great ideas in here," Joseph Boyden says.
"I agree," Amanda agrees. "But we have some notes."
The next four days are an ecstatic blur, as we workshop through the novel's problems--and there are problems. After the day's writing and rewriting is done, we go for a long walks in the cool night and I tell them all about my wonderful, supportive wife and my ridiculous daughter, who is, by October, speaking in sentences and, oh, the things she says!
At last, the retreat has run its course, and Nicole and Lill have come over to meet me in Campbell River for a little family holiday before the drag of everyday life resumes. Joseph and Amanda, my new best friends, invite the three of us to New Orleans "sometime after Mardi Gras" and Joseph tells me he wants to show my next draft to some important people.
The next spring, in Louisiana, a chance encounter in Louis Armstrong Park leads to a meeting with David Simon, who immediately buys the rights to my novel and offers me a job, forever changing my fortunes.
Here's how things went:
"Hello, Mr. Matherson? I'm sorry to inform you that the Art of Fiction writing intensive with Joseph and Amanda Boyden has been cancelled."
Awwww, crap!
Here's Big Tree, a New York band who play what I call Hippie Jazz, performing a terrif version of "Little Brother" live. The song is also on their self-titled 2008 album, but this live version just kills it. If you're in the Canadian Maritimes, they'll be playing Julie Doiron's Sappyfest on July 31.

MP3: "The Concurrence of All Things" by Big Tree from their brand new EP, Home (Here)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Google Me

So, um, the number one search term leading to this blog over the last week was "Bon Jovi Emmet Matheson". Also, a lot of visits have been coming in from Iran. I don't want to jump to any, I mean, I don't think the two are, well, that's one heck of a coincidence.
I wrote some words about Bon Jovi for the prairie dog, and also about Das Racist. The Bon Jovi thing is a follow-up to something I wrote last fall. I don't know why I've written more about Bon Jovi in the last year than any other band, and I don't know why they care so much in Iran. But I'm glad they do.
Meanwhile, remember Bigg Jigg? I featured him here a few months ago. Just like the Rural Alberta Advantage, the Deep Dark Woods, Women and the Parkas, great things have happened for Bigg Jigg aka The Breadwinner since appearing on ABWAWBA. He's just signed to Universal Music Group, who will release his debut longplayer I Am The Go 2 Man on August 20.

mp3: "Google Me (Dirty Version)" by Bigg Jigg

now is better than before

Wednesday on the swings, a girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old, yells to be pushed higher, harder, faster.
"You're boring, Dad," she says to the man behind her.
He looks at me and smiles with pride, "She has no idea how hard I work at being boring."

mp3: "My Daughter" by Lucky Fonz III

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The city was my teacher, I left an apple on her desk

Nicole asked me the other night, "When people ask you where you're from, what do you say?"
I usually say I'm from Regina.
"But you're not from Regina, you grew up in Saskatoon."
I started to get into "Well, okay, I had my childhood in Saskatoon, but I was a teenager in Regina, and that's really what it is to grow up, that's the crucible of youth..."
But Nicole was just asking what I say when people ask.
And people do ask. Nobody's from Vancouver. Somebody must be, my daughter is, but even the most Vancouverish of people I know come from elsewhere: Marrakech, Burnaby, Saskatoon.
I left Saskatoon for Regina three months after my 15th birthday. My adolescence to that point had been relatively smooth and uncomplicated. I never thought about leaving Saskatoon, never thought of Saskatoon as a place to escape or, worse, as a place impossible to escape. I don't doubt that I would have eventually found Saskatoon to be a set of shackles around my ankles when I'm trying to jump a train. Nearly all my friends from Saskatoon have left (most of them are here in Vancouver), most them as soon as they could.
But the fact remains that I didn't stay in Saskatoon long enough to resent it. When I left, Saskatoon was still big enough to hold my dreams. Saskatoon teemed with adults I admired. Important people walked among us. Though we never saw him, we had heard that a famous and respected novelist lived on the same crescent as Dan and John, not far from Market Mall. Our Eighth Grade teacher had put out a record! All around us there were poets, visual artists, musicians, upholsterers, sewage engineers, whatever. Maybe I was just too young and naive to think otherwise, or maybe I was just lucky, but the people I knew--peers and adults alike--were really engaged with the community. Those people seemed harder to find in Regina.
Of course, I never really had to negotiate Saskatoon as anything other than a child, a teenaged child, okay. Even at my most independent, I could always count on certain securities. I always knew that my parents, teachers (with a few horrible exceptions), or other responsible adults would take care of me. Even when I stayed out all night or showed up at school with tiny dots of red paint on my glasses the Monday after someone spray-painted a pentagram and surrounded by the words Mötley Crüe on the portable classroom, I always felt like a part of something.

I don't mean to suggest that Regina is a shit place and that all the people I met there were shit people and that the writers, artists and musicians I got to know there as a teenager were shit writers, artists and musicians. Far from it. The truth is that Regina never had a chance. I became a sulky teenager almost from the moment I arrived and it was through those eyes that I saw Regina. Saskatoon, meanwhile, remained the city of my childhood. For years, I only saw Regina for what it wasn't.
I still dream about Saskatoon sometimes, but I don't pretend to know what it's become. Regina, I'm less angry at all the time.
I still don't have a good or wholly accurate answer to "Where are you from?" But I'm working on it.

mp3: "This Affair" by Soft Reeds

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Notes on Tower of Song

In my previous entry, I listed 100 singer-songwriters supposedly greater than Leonard Cohen and supposedly lesser than Hank Williams. It was inspired by a few things:
I. Obviously, Leonard Cohen's aw-shucks humility in "Tower of Song".
II. The stereotype of obsessive list-making pop music devotees (exemplified by John Cusack's never-ending Top Fives in High Fidelity) that I curiously missed out on during my decade of music writing. Despite the fact that I've written (and continue to write) hundreds of record reviews, I don't think too highly of my skills as a critic. I mean, I'm a great listener and I'm a pretty good writer, and sometimes I'm able to bring those two skillsets together in alternatingly informative and entertaining paragraphs. But as far as being any kind of "this is better than this" authority? That ain't me.
My tastes are mine alone, idiosyncratic (and I don't say that as an elitist of any kind, but after some honest appraisal of how come so many of my favourite acts have failed to capture the minds and hearts of every, or sometimes any, other person on the planet) and irrevocably flawed and I'm in no position to shit on anyone for loving what they love. Nor would I want to. What I consider my real apprenticeship as a writer during the decade I covered the Hit Parade for the prairie dog and the Leader-Post was the feature-writing. Interviewing and reporting. Amassing the raw materials of a story and assembling them in a coherent and hopefully engaging narrative. I won't say that's where my strengths were, but that's where my strengths became. Certainly it's where my interest took me.
I've never been too chummy with other music writers, but I don't think many others looked at it like that. This is pure speculation here, but it seemed as though the features and profiles were--usually better-paying--means of subsidizing low-paying review-writing. That's how I saw them at first. In the hubris of youth, I figured that my talents as a taste-maker were being wasted on write-ups for upcoming shows. Reviews, man, were where I could really say something, and boy did I have something to say. Why should I let someone else's words eat up my precious column inches?
Features, or profiles, are far more restrictive in their structure and far less conducive to baring my tortured writer's soul. I had chops to work out, damn it! But, y'know, I got older and wiser, and actually started listening to what the people I interviewed had to say and started actually being curious about the people who made the music I had so many opinions about. I became something approaching a journalist, I guess. I cared less and less about telling people what I thought and more and more about showing people why they should care.
Despite my disenfranchisement with what I believed to be convential rock-write-think, I still love the pop critics and their endless list-making. I still took part in end-of-year listmaking, but as time passed, my lists became unwieldly and uncomprehensive.
III. I've been half-assedly interested in different ways the Internet and social media are changing the way content is generated. Blogger Dan Zambonini has done some interesting things pointing out the relationships between metrics and culture, and his recent post on The Januarist coincides with the basic premise of my Tower of Song list.
IV. The prairie dog's Gregory Beatty said some terribly snobbish things about Country Music that I felt needed to be refuted. I didn't quite address that in the list, but it was on my mind as I created it. Perhaps I'll compile a list of Awesome Mainstream Country Songs sometime.

SO. I created this list. It's inconsistent and there are some glaring omissions (John Hiatt, Alex Chilton, just for starters). I'm not that pleased with it, but I made it through to the end, and I even got a comment on it from perhaps the world's leading poet on the subject of Leo Cooper, Gus Braveyard. The list has already become my most popular posting on this blog since the time I wrote about Mike Reno's toupe. But, as an executed concept, it is a failure.

Some notes:

  • If the fact that Cohen is on the first floor and Williams is on the hundred-and-first is to have any significance, the singer-songwriters must be greater as the floor number increases. Demonstrably not so on my list. I tried to rationalize that I was merely compiling a continuum of singer-songwriters who would fall into similar levels of greatness as Cohen and Williams and that, hey, there's really such a slim margin of greatness between the two of them than any gradation of quality on such a scale would be measurable only through quantum physics, right? But, come on.
  • Youtube let me down. I decided early in the project that I wanted to back my claims up with links to proof of singer-songwriter greatness. The easiest way to do this uniformly was through Youtube. I left Neil Hagerty off the list because I couldn't find any decent quality vids of him as primary singer of a great song written by him. Surely he's written better tunes than, I dunno, Greg Dulli, but Afghan Wigs have better vids than Royal Trux.
  • I know I said no roomies, but then I put Hall & Oates together. Coulda made the case they within a singer-songwriter continuum they exist as one being, but then I gave all three Bee Gees their own individual floors.
  • Punk rock, heavy metal and rap are dismally underrepresented. What can I say? I don't listen to that much punk or metal lately, and rap songwriting credits are confusing. Sorry, dudes.
  • Never mind that the order of the listings create the illusion of really poor judgment in ranking, there are some pretty questionable choices on here. Well, at one point, the criteria for making it on the list was that the singer-songwriter in question only had to have ONE SONG that was as good as or better than Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song", which is a pretty good song, but not one of Cohen's ten best ("There is a War", "Jazz Police", "The Captain", "Who By Fire", "Field Commander Cohen", "Sisters of Mercy", "Avalanche", "The Future", "I Can't Forget" and "The Law"). Still, some people got through who might not have lasted a more thoughtful compilation process.
  • Floors 2-10, 12-16, 19, 21, 25-29, 33, 36, 37, 41, 42, 44, 46, 83, 93 and 99 should be uncontroversial by any canonical standard.
  • I had originally intended to leave Willie Nelson off the list entirely because I truly believe he is a stronger ideal of singer-songwriter-osity than Hank Williams, and would hence be on the 102nd floor, but I couldn't figure out how to make that explicit w/o explicitly saying it like I just have.

mp3: "When Will This Heartache End?" by the Blue Shadows

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Tower of Song Residents List: Floors 2 through 100

I said to Hank Williams 'How lonely does it get?'
Hank Williams hasn't answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long

A hundred floors above me
In the Tower of Song

Leonard Cohen, "Tower of Song"


We're going to assume several things.
1. Cohen's talking about Hank Williams, Sr. and not Bocephus
2. Residents of the Tower of Song are alotted the entire floor. No roommates!
3. Cohen is on the first floor. There's no reason to assume this, but since we won't be concerned with anyone on floors below, we'll just act as though there aren't any floors below.


If Leonard Cohen is on the first floor, and Hank Williams is a hundred floors above him (ie, Floor #101), Floors #2-100 are inhabited by singer-songwriters greater than Leonard Cohen but lesser than Hank Williams. Please disagree.


Floor #2: Joni Mitchell
Floor #3: Lou Reed
Floor #4: Ray Davies
Floor #5: Bill Callahan
Floor #6: Nick Lowe
Floor #7: George Jones
Floor #8: Buffy Sainte-Marie
Floor #9: John Prine
Floor #10:Dolly Parton
Floor #11: Kenny Loggins
Floor #12: Neil Diamond
Floor #13: John Darnielle
Floor #14: Lee Hazlewood
Floor #15: Bo Diddley
Floor #16: Tom Waits
Floor #17: Mike Feuerstack
Floor #18: Lyle Lovett
Floor #19: Serge Gainsbourg
Floor #20: Mark E. Smith
Floor #21: Brian Wilson
Floor #22: Michel Pagliaro
Floor #23: Loretta Lynn
Floor #24: Joe Tex
Floor #25: Andy Kim
Floor #26: Vic Chesnutt
Floor #27: Roy Orbison
Floor #28: Frank Black
Floor #29: Guy Clark
Floor #30: Daryl Hall & John Oates
Floor #31: R. Kelly
Floor #32: Lindsay Buckingham
Floor #33: Otis Redding
Floor #34: Teddy Pendergrass
Floor #35: Dwight Yoakam
Floor #36: Merle Haggard
Floor #37: Jonathan Richman
Floor #38: Bruce McCulloch
Floor #39: Lhasa de Sela
Floor #40: Missy Elliott
Floor #41: Nina Simone
Floor #42: Prince
Floor #43: Will Oldham
Floor #44: Elvis Costello
Floor #45: Howe Gelb
Floor #46: Willie Nelson
Floor #47: Mark Sandman
Floor #48: Roger Dean Young
Floor #49 : Dean Wareham
Floor #50 : Marcellus Hall
Floor #51 : Nils Edenloff
Floor #52 : Andrew Vincent
Floor #53: Chuck Prophet
Floor #54 : Hayden Desser
Floor #55 : Jesse Winchester
Floor #56 : David Berman
Floor #57 : Clay George
Floor #58 : Ian Svenonius
Floor #59 : Trevor Anderson
Floor #60 : Adam Franklin
Floor #61 : Don Covay
Floor #62 : Roky Erickson
Floor #63: Neko Case
Floor #64: Ric Ocasek
Floor #65: Greg Dulli
Floor #66: Joel RL Phelps
Floor #67: Jason Molina
Floor #68: Gillian Welch
Floor #69: Kim Mitchell
Floor #70: Robbie Fulks
Floor #71: Jennifer Herrema
Floor #72: Cindy Walker
Floor #73: Lucille Bogan
Floor #74: Joel Plaskett
Floor #75: Andre Ethier
Floor #76: Shuggie Otis
Floor #77: Randy Newman
Floor #78: Raphael Saadiq
Floor #79: Mary Gauthier
Floor #80: Matthew Smith
Floor #81: Chuck Prophet
Floor #82: Arthur Alexander
Floor #83: Neil Young
Floor #84: Julie Doiron
Floor #85: Robin Gibb
Floor #86: Barry Gibb
Floor #87: Chan Marshall
Floor #88: Maurice Gibb
Floor #89: Tony Joe White
Floor #90: Tanya Tucker
Floor #91: Bobby Bare
Floor #92: J Mascis
Floor #93: Chuck Berry
Floor #94: Doug Yule
Floor #95: Aaron Riches
Floor #96: Don Matsuo
Floor #97: James Hetfield
Floor #98: Kate Bush
Floor #99: Marvin Gaye
Floor #100: Mark Knopfler

mp3: "Private Eyes" by The Bird and The Bee (scroll down a bit to see my review here)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

In defense of bad writers

American writer Richard Bausch, in a recent essay for the Atlantic, bemoans the proliferation of writing manuals, or the people who buy them. Or the both of them. Or something. At any rate, he wants us to know that he no longer dresses like a bum.

Take a cursory look online. Amazon.com lists 4,470 titles under the heading of How to Write a Book. There, mixed with titles like How to Write a Chick Lit Novel and How to Write and Sell Your Novel are titles like How to Manage Your Home Remodel. Of course it’s the how to phrase that makes the listing what it is and where it is, but in fact, in terms of the expectations and the implied message, these books belong together, and according to the prevailing wisdom of our time, constructing a novel or a poem or a play is no different than building a back deck on your house.

I've yet to build a back deck or successfully construct a novel, but I've done some writing and I've done some building. I spent some time near the Michipicoten River in the Algoma District of Ontario, building bridges and clearing brush, and I put in some years writing record reviews. I tore up the train station in the town where Duddy Kravitz bought land and I once had a short story published in my friend's literary mag. I learned pretty early that you don't buy new shoes when you're out of town. Lately, I've been doing my best to put in an hour a day on a terrible novel so that I can





and move on to write something, y'know, at least approaching good. I've got ideas, plots, characters, scenes, beats, notes and notes piling up for all the good novels I'm going to write once I write this first terrible book that I've committed to. But this guy--in his Buster Browns from Brooks Brothers, who's too good for $10,000, who says he knows a lady that writes like "one of those electronic calculators"--shits all over people who are trying. Okay, he says that his quarrel (and the fact that he uses the word quarrel is a strong sign that he doesn't like you) is actually with "the implication" of writing manuals. And if that had played out in his essay, I'd probably have Twittered a link to it and moved on with my life. Because I could get behind a quarrel with the implications of writing manuals. A quarrel against those who seek to exploit amateurs and profit from their hopes while providing them with nothing useful. Hell yeah, that's a quarrel worth quarreling.
But Bausch instead spends far too many words and far too much vigour saying that people who want to write about zombies probably have bad skin, that genre fiction is "harmless, and honorable enough" and that people who read writing manuals don't want to be writers, they merely want to pose as writers. And why wouldn't you, when you too could have been horseback riding with Jane Smiley before she was Jane Smiley?
He rails and rails at these poseurs, these amateurs, and but maintains his chummy relationship with the publishers of the obviously snake-oil writing manuals, and even agrees to write a chapter for one of their guides. Ultimately, though, he can abide no longer, when the editing of said writing manual "does violence to my meaning."
Fuck his meaning. And fuck the Brooks Brothers shoes he walked in on.
Writing is not a mystical butterfly to be captured in a net woven from the tears of a warlock who cries only at the beauty of a lady-in-waiting who waits no more, but goes down to the valley and tempts the unicorn from her cave with sweets from beyond the realm of her saints. Y'know?
Writing is this basic thing that usually requires nothing more than fingers and ideas. And sometimes not even that much. In his excellent and humane writing manual, This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley defines the novel as "a pedestrian work about the everyday lives of bricklayers and saints." I can get behind that. I can take umbrage in that. I can relate to that.
What I can't get behind is Bausch's reckless snobbery. He gives an example of what he believes to be poor writing, but provides no context before condemning it as "unwittingly hilarious." Come on, Bausch (unless you've made up the example yourself), even a soured lime like you can't believe a line like "He tweaked her nipple and grabbed it as though it was the arm of a small child" could be hilarious in other way than quite wittingly.
I've been lucky enough to spend a few afternoons with facilitators from Megaphone Magazine's writing workshops in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. I've seen them encourage and enable absolutely wonderful prose and poetry from barely literate writers.
I don't know what Richard Baush is afraid of. He's achieved a career as a writer of novels and stories (very good ones, by most accounts), and certainly shouldn't feel threatened by the legions aspiring just that. There are many useful books on writing, there are many more that are a total waste of time. You didn't need me to tell you that.
Ironically, Bausch closes his penultimate paragraph with:
To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.
What a dick.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Awful old days

A kid showed up at my door selling chocolate-covered almonds. "To keep me off the streets," he said. I bought two boxes, because that's my weakness. The streets.
When I was a kid, that was where I wanted to be. That was where I was. In the summer, on my bike, 10 or 11 years-old, finding new neighbourhoods. I'd bike around until I found a bunch of kids my age or older, call them some names, like "fatso" or "wheezebag", and then let them chase me until they got bored. Sometimes I'd wheel around their block again, if I couldn't find any other action. I never got caught and I never worried about what might happen if I did.
One time, some kids nearly had me, I think they might have been faster than me. But I was in my own neighbourhood, and I just tore up onto the lawn of a family I knew and started screaming until Mrs. Leversoll came out and chased the other kids off. Of course, I knew where to find them again.
Charlie Drabinsky was two years older and went to the same school. He grew up around the corner from me and we'd known each other as long as either one of us could remember. There weren't a lot of kids on his street, so he had to come over to ours, and we were all younger and smaller than him. Sometimes we looked up to him, because he was older and faster and stronger. It bugged him, though, to have to hang out with us younger kids all time. Like it was great that he could be his own team against three or four of us in football on the lawn of the apartment building across the street, and it was great that he could always beat us. But no one ever through a touchdown pass to him. No one ever gave him a high-five when he scored. He was with us, but he was apart.
At school, especially later on, he didn't say much to me. The first little bit on the bus in the morning, he'd be friendly enough. I'd say, "Hey Charlie! Did you catch that Jays game last night?" and he'd say, "No, I wasn't wearing my mitt."
I'd laugh, not sure if I was supposed to. And then the bus would pick up the Sawatsky kids and Frank, the oldest, would sit with Charlie at the back of the bus and they'd both ignore me. The kids at school who weren't from the neighbourhood called him Charles, and eventually everyone called him Charles. He stopped knowing the entire spoken intro at the beginning of The Six-Million-Dollar Man. He stopped taking me on bike rides out past the university, to wild, overgrown riverbank. He stopped telling me I was all right, "for a total nincompoop." He stopped being Charlie and started being Charles.

mp3: "Caravan of Love" by Arabesque

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

And then Lois says, "You've got me. Who's got you?"

Look, I need to say upfront that Lex Luthor is a genius. An evil genius, sure, but nobody's perfect.
So when some guy on the Internet says that Christopher Nolan is the wrong guy to revitalize the Superman movie franchise, I say to myself, well, that guy's no Lex Luthor.
When news broke that Nolan had been hired to shepherd the Man of Steel back to glory, I wasn't thrilled, but not because I didn't think he was up to the task. My worry is that the silver screen version of superheroes could become as homogenized as their comic book counterparts.

TANGENT: This condition was institutionalized at DC Comics last week with executive shuffling that names Geoff Johns Chief Creative Officer. As recently as 2004, you could find a wide array of storytelling in the DC Universe. You had the moody police procedural of Gotham Central, the anything-goes super-soap opera of the early run of Superman/Batman, and the fearless cartooning of Kyle Baker's Plastic Man. If you bought an issue of Detective Comics starring Batman and an issue of The Flash, you could count on each comic having its own tones and rhythms. Then, beginning with Identity Crisis and continuing on from Johns's well-intentioned disaster Infinite Crisis to his current thuddingly-dull Blackest Night, the whole line became this dour, depressing series of catchphrasing and limb-rending. END TANGENT

C. Robert Cargill, however, thinks that, much like Lori Lemaris, Nolan is "wrong, wrong, wrong" for Superman. And he was kind enough to break it down to five reasons, all of which are based on the pretty insulting assumption that Nolan only knows how to make one kind of film. As if a Nolan-driven Superman movie will feature Jor-El and Lara taking Kal-El home from the opera when all of a sudden a man comes out of the shadows and blows up Krypton, unwittingly giving birth to Superman's neverending war on opera.

1. According to Cargill, "Superman ISN'T a dark hero." Really? He's the last survivor of his entire species. If the deaths of millions, probably billions, of people and the destruction of an entire planet isn't a dark subject, what is? Batman lost his parents and became a pouty creature of the night. Superman lost his whole freaking planet. Brood on that, Bats.
2. "Superman isn't a detective," says Cargill. No, he's just a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. Nothing sleuthy going on there, no sir. Especially not from that very un-detective-like Lois Lane, who, as a nervy dame with a nose for news, never finds herself in over her head in situations that might as well be lifted right out of the noir textbook. Nope, nothing like that to see here. And since when is Nolan a detective filmmaker? Batman Begins and The Dark Knight succeed largely as science fiction films dressed up as crime thrillers. Certainly The Prestige is full on sci-fi, and at its heart, so is Memento. The Prestige and Memento are both exactly the kind of stories that used to feature in Superman comics back when Superman was the most popular fictional character on the whole planet. Thanks to his frequent contact with futuristic sorceresses and Red Kryptonite, Superman was always losing his memory or discovering imperfect duplicates of himself.
3. "They're throwing out the current continuity," Cargill mentions. I actually can't find any reference to Nolan in this "reason why Nolan shouldn't oversee the new Superman film", so I'm tempted to overlook it. Also, because it's a stupid reason. Also, because hopefully filmmakers will recognize that they've been telling Superman's origin for the last 10 years or so on Smallville and just tell a good Superman story.
4. "Nolan is great on story, but terrible on staying true to its history," Cargill claims. By now, I'm not sure if Cargill has ever seen a Christopher Nolan film, or any film at all for that matter. Nolan, like Tim Burton before him, excels at creating style and atmosphere, setting an appealing and intriguing tone for his films. The storylines and plots of his films tend to take a backseat to tone and theme. That's not the worst flaw for a filmmaker to have, and it's consistent in his films.
5. "Superman is science fiction," Cargill says. "Nolan is real world." This seems to be the same reason as #2, but what the heck. Cargill's got Nolan here, since Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight were all faithful adaptations of true stories. Cargill notes that Nolan's upcoming film Inception is science fiction, but dismisses it because nobody knows if it will be good or not. Unlike his Superman movie, which Cargill knows will be bad. Cargill also proves that he hasn't seen Superman III in this paragraph, which is too bad, because I think he'd like it.
Stayed tuned for an upcoming post where I'll outline ways that a new Superman movie could be awesome (regardless of who's involved), including my top secret idea for a 30th Century Bromantic Comedy co-starring Lar Gand and Jo Nah.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

It Helps if You Dress Like a Detective: Intro to Crime Fiction

I've always been a fan of crime fiction. I mastered reading on the Hardy Boys novels (and entrenched my fascination with detective work in The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, which featured a brown colour scheme instead of the usual blue, underscoring its grim purpose) and DC Comics (DC originally stood for Detective Comics, but now it doesn't stand for much at all). When I returned to reading comics as an adult (after a 13-year indifference), I was surprised to find superhero comics generally lumped in with Science Fiction. To me, they had always been detective stories, four-colour morality plays of crimes punished and justice avenged. Even the more glaringly sci-fi stuff like Green Lantern featured readily identifiable elements of crime fiction.
Sure, I was into Star Wars as a kid, but my Sci-Fi/Fantasy interest didn't go much further. On my bookshelves today, non-comic book Sci-Fi appears infrequently. I have some Soviet Sci-Fi, a novel written by a Regina author, and Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music, if that even counts. The Yiddish Policemen's Union won a Hugo, but, hey, come on, that's a crime novel.
Richard Price talks about how he uses the act of investigating a crime as a means of taking readers to place they otherwise wouldn't have access to, be it the tenement courtyards of Clockers or the condo-converted synagogues of Lush Life. The investigation of a crime, especially a murder, is a distorted reflection of the way fiction writers work: building files on their characters, coming up with plausible scenarios and then breaking them down, constantly asking what if, what if, what if? It's no surprise, then, that so many writers use the crime novel as a vehicle to explore larger themes than merely whodunnit, and that there are so many terrifically-written crime novels. The first two entries in our series are examples of this socially aware crime fiction.

The Story of a Crime: The Martin Beck Series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö - This ten-book series is the big daddy of Scandinavian crime lit (Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, etc) and colossally well done. Hyped by Michael Connelly and Michael Ondaatje, this is straight-up police procedural at its finest, but also remarkably potent (but never polemic) social criticism. Before they started this series with Roseanna in 1965, married couple (and affirmed Marxists) Sjöwall and Wahlöö worked in poetry and journalism, and the skillsets of those two trades are used in perfect harmony here. Witness:
Ten yards away stood a lone dismal figure, a pipe in his mouth and his hands thrust deep down in his coat pockets. This was Fredrik Melander of the Murder Squad in Stockholm and a veteran of hundreds of difficult investigations. He was generally known for his logical mind, his excellent memory and unshakeable calm. Within a smaller circle, he was most famous for his remarkable capacity for always being in the toilet when anyone wanted to get hold of him. His sense of humour was not nonexistent, but very modest; he was parsimonious and dull and never had brilliant ideas or sudden inspiration. Briefly, he was a first-class policeman. (from The Fire Engine That Disappeared)

As you can probably tell from that passage, Sjöwall and Wahlöö were not interested in supersleuths or tough guys. American crime fiction is full of disenfranchised mavericks, often working in competition with the authorities, even when they themselves are members of a police force. It's that rugged individualism of one man against the world, or at least the system. But the detectives in the Martin Beck series are presented as civil servants, who solve cases not through passion but through process. They wait weeks for lab results, stumble blindly into breaks, sleuth by way of talking to people and reading reports. In between, they go home to their wives (the books were published between 1965 and 1975 and reflect an era when there were few women in policing), their model ship kits, and Sax Rohmer novels. The series epitomizes Walter Mosley's idea of the Novel as "a pedestrian work of the everyday lives of bricklayers and saints."

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley - This is the first of three collections of short stories featuring Socrates Fortlow (the others are Walkin' The Dog and The Right Mistake). Mosley is one of Bill Clinton's favourite writers, and also one of mine. In the Watts neighbourhood of L.A. of the early 90s, we meet Socco, fresh from a 27-year bit in an Indiana prison for the murder of two people. We follow him through his neighbourhood as he struggles to give purpose and meaning to life on the outside. Mosley never shies away from Socrates's darkest parts, and never resorts to sentimentality, all the while creating a remarkably sympathetic portrait of a very hard man. HBO made a pretty damn fine miniseries out of it starring Laurence Fishburne Jr.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Vanhattan? More like Vanhassle!

Last spring, I’m waiting for the #3 Downtown bus at the corner of Main and Broadway. I’m on my way in for a 12-hour shift, on a Sunday, so I’m not in a great mood to start with. The bus, unreliable at the best of times, seems to follow no schedule at all on Sundays. So I’ve got to get out way ahead of time just be on time. I’ve got to hustle like a keener just to keep from being a slob.
But here comes the bus, I can see it way down the street.
During the week, the #3 is like any other bus I’ve ever been on in Vancouver, packed. By the time I get on, no more than ten minutes from the city core, it’s standing room only, usually with the pleasurable view of the sleeve of someone’s wet raincoat. But Sunday mornings before 8, it’s mostly shift workers like me. Security guards in turbans with shopping bags full of groceries from the 24-hour supermarkets, nurses in their colourfully printed scrubs, and the occasional straggler from Satuday night’s revelry. Sunday mornings, I can count on sitting down on the bus.
The bus stops at a red light across Broadway, and I can’t believe my eyes. The digital display reads “Sorry. Bus full.” The light changes to green and the bus carries on in the centre lane.
As it goes by, I see them: Sun Runners, in their T-shirts and shorts. Chipper with their power shakes and lattes. Laughing, ha ha. As I watch the bus make its way down the hill, I quietly pray for rain. Hail, even.
Another bus passes by. As if!
Finally, I get a break. The third bus is no less full, but the driver is at least a reasonable human being.
I edge on to front of the bus sideways, like a Tetris block. I can’t even get in far enough to validate my Faresaver. Upfront we’re elbow to eyeball, but craning my neck, I can see empty seats at the back. Lots of them.
The Sun Runners, these fit folks who ride the bus maybe five days a year—to hockey games or fireworks—are bogarting their personal space. They’re doing stretches in the aisles.
And I’m late for work.

To live in Vancouver is to deal with frustration. If it's not the Sun Run--an annual 10km race sponsored by the city's broadsheet publisher of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle--it's made-for-TV film shoots, infrastructure mega-projects, Victorian-era zoning bylaws, or gang-related shootings. It's not the awe-inspiring natural surroundings that lead so many Vancouverites to yoga, it's the hope of learning to cope with constantly thwarted plans.
The Olympics will just be an extreme manifestation of this essential Vancouverism.
What's saddest about the Olympics as an event--aside from the 800 teachers the province might lay off to help pay for it, or the dozens of innocents who will inadvertently read a Shelley Fralic column--is that visitors are going to miss out on the best parts of Vancouver. Parking restrictions and transit priorities will leave little opportunity for tourists to see what daily life in the Soggy Apple is really like. It won't be impossible, but it won't be easy for the determined to get to the other side of Gastown and drop in on Robert at Solder & Sons, the Downtown Eastside's coffee and books emporium (the coffee is new, the books are used) where you can challenge the regulars to a match of Scrabble, or just hang out with the fixed-gearheads from Super Champion, the bike shop next door. Or take your Americano down the street to Crab Park Fight your way back to the Downtown side of Gastown for a Najib's Special at Nuba, arguably the finest lunch in all of Vancouver. Or, how about Cambie Village? The area paid a dear cost during construction of the Canada Line, and now, in the hinterland between City Hall and King Edwards stops, will they reap any benefit?
Of course, the real best parts of Vancouver have nothing to do with the city itself. Without the bridges, without the SkyTrains, without the souvenir shops, without the people, the mountains and ocean would still be here. There are wild parts of the city, such as the steep banks of the Millennium Line at Commercial Drive, overgrown and lush, that remind us how we've changed the landscape to suit our needs. Raccoons and coyotes, great blue herons even, roam the city streets before dawn. Many progressive agencies in the Downtown Eastside acknowledge the idea that Vancouver sits on unceded Coast Salish territory, and the persistence of these nocturnal fauna is a reminder of our late arrival here.

Gary Stephen Ross, editor-in-chief of Vancouver magazine, wrote an essay on "the idea of Vancouver" for the current issue of The Walrus. It's accompanied by brilliant photos of Vancouver by Grant Harder that capture the range and depth of Vancouver life. Also in the issue, a powerful piece by Marian Botsford Fraser on the Canadian penal system, and a fantastic report on Rush by Jason Anderson. In fact, my favourite part of the issue is on the Contributors pages, where it says that Anderson is working on his second novel, about the Canadian film industry. It's a hell of an issue, you should buy it.
Ross compares Vancouver to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in the film Owning Mahowny, which was based on the book Stung, written by Gary Stephen Ross. Hoffman, you'll remember, also played Lester Bangs in that terrible Cameron Crowe movie about ten years ago, and Bangs, who died in 1982, wrote that The Bells is Lou Reed's best solo LP. Bangs didn't live long enough to hear Mistrial, but I don't think it would have changed a thing. Bob Seger is reported to have written a song about Lester Bangs, called "Lester Knew." Bruce McCulloch definitely did write a song about Bob Seger, called "Bob Seger." It's on his album The Drunk Baby Project. It is also better than anything on Mistrial.

mp3: "Nobody Can Turn Me Around" by the Sojourners
mp3: "Bob Seger" by Bruce McCulloch

mp3: "I Wanna Know Girls" by Lambchop

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ten Great Songs 2009 #6/#7: Easiest Game/Disco Mystic

At this point, moving toward the end of January 2010, who really cares about 2009 anymore? So, like, if I want to put a song that came out at the end of 2008 on my Best of 2009 list, nobody's going to notice anymore. How about a song from 1979? How about a whole album from 1979 that I didn't even hear until 2010? Look, Emmet, if you're still slogging through your year-end list this deep into the new year, well, whatever gets it done, pal.
So that's why I'm telling you about The Bells today. Lou Reed's ninth solo album, released between Street Hassle and Growing Up in Public. When I cared about Lou Reed (and I cared, man, I cared) Street Hassle (1978) was his last good album until New York (1989)--which was his last good album until that one with the song about getting an eggcream. As far as I was concerned, there was a whole decade where if there was a difference between Lou Reed and Joe Piscopo, there wasn't enough of one to matter. It was just a big clusterfuck of red joysticks, original wrappers and drum programs.
Well, if any theme has emerged in the narrative of this blog, it's that I used to have bad judgment (now I'm spot on about everything). So, The Bells.
#1: "Stupid Man" - I can't believe I didn't know that Lou Reed had a song mentioning Saskatchewan until a couple of months ago when I heard this song by accident. If I'd heard this at the right age (13/14) it might've changed the course of my life. Maybe not. I'm kinda glad I only heard it now, when I can relate more to the baby daughter lyrics than to the hitch-hiking out of Saskatchewan lyrics.
Right away you know this isn't typical Lou Reed. The song starts with piano, probably electric, then drums and great disco bass line. Lyrically, this is a country song, it's "Memphis, TN" by Chuck Berry. It's the Prodigal Father, trying to get home where he belongs. Nobody's wired on down, nobody's trying to hit it sideways.
Country lyrics, disco rhythm? This is Lou Reed?
#2: "Disco Mystic" - This is the craziest song I've ever heard. It foreshadows "Druganaut" and "99 Problems" at the same time. It's relentless, it's murder, it's brilliant.
#3: "I Want to Boogie With You" - Whatever happened to rock sax?* The first line here, Lou sounds like Flight of the Conchords doing Bowie. This is the first track on the album where Lou actually sings like Lou a little bit, and it's a laundry list of people who don't like him, people who want to see his ship sink, etc. But he just wants to boogie with you, down on the corner. Because he's Lou Reed, that's where he boogies.
#4: "With You" - This is another Lou Reed put-down song, continuing his late-70s collection of songs where he basically shits on people ("Dirt" and "Leave Me Alone" from Street Hassle, "Temporary Thing" from Rock and Roll Heart, etc).
#5: "Looking for Love" - Like "Boogie" this is a riff on Springsteen (who guested on Street Hassle) and built around rock sax. It's a little more downtown-lyrically, a little more Lou Reed-y, but still sorta chooglin'. I think he kinda sounds like the guy from the Violent Femmes on this one, but I guess it's the other way around.
#6: "City Lights" - Rhodes piano, kazoo and found percussion wouldn't sound as good together again until Royal Trux's 1998 album Accelerator. That alb, incidentally, closes with "Stevie (for Steven S.)" which is a tribute to Steven Seagal just as "City Lights" here is a tribute to Charlie Chaplin, another actor better known for his physical presence on screen than for his ability to deliver lines convincingly.
#7: "All Through the Night" - Especially in the 70s, but probably always, Lou Reed was a great recycler of ideas. Here he uses the same overdubbed snippets of conversation effect he used on "Kicks" from 1975's Coney Island Baby. It's used more precisely here, and all the voices seem to be Lou. We hear other people laugh, but always at Lou's bon mots. He says things like "he didn't age gracefully, he aged overnight" or "the drink's aren't on the house, they're on me!" This is actually the song where he sounds like Gord Gano, but I didn't have a lot to say about "Looking for Love".
#8: "Families" - When I think about Lou Reed's family, I think about "Kill Your Sons" from 1972's Sally Can't Dance. It's his presumably autobiographical song about getting electroshock therapy as a teenager and it doesn't paint a kind portrait of his kinfolk. But this is a letter home with heart. Even though he tells his father, "there's nothing we have in common except our names" he shows some real compassion (not Lou's trademark) and there's a genuine sadness to the refrain "I don't come home much no more."
#9: "The Bells" - The title track, the capital city, THE BELLS. Marty Fogel and Don Cherry skulking horns over a sparingly recurring three-note bassline for 5:30 and then! Theremin and Lou talks some nonsense about when actors leave the stage, "looking out he thought he saw a crook, and he hollered, 'look there are the bells!'" Yeah, sure. It's too bad the lyrics are so whiffy, because Fogel and Cherry have really worked up a terrific free-jazz rock dirge and the song weighs a ton for mood and tone and sometimes you just have to go, "Okay, Lou, go ahead."

I bought the album on iTunes, marking the first time I've owned any Lou Reed in any format other than cassette (not true: I have owned White Light/White Heat on vinyl since October, 1995). Which tells you how long it's been since I really, really wanted to be able hear some Lou Reed when the moment struck. According to iTunes, the top five Lou Reed albums are (in order) Transformer, New York, 1969: The Velvet Underground Live with Lou Reed, New Sensations, and Berlin. The first two seem obvious enough, his biggest hits. The live VU album is an aberration (fine though it may be, esp "What Goes On") and has no business in the solo Lou section. Berlin, I can see, that's a pretty harsh album and people who like Lou Reed seem to go for the harsh stuff, same with Sarah Silverman, y'know? But New Sensations? Why not Legendary Hearts or Mistrial? Why not the one with the song about eggcreams? I guess it means that everybody already has Sally Can't Dance and Coney Island Baby in other formats? It bothers me more than it should. I mean, yes, New Sensations has "My Red Joystick" but it also has "Doin' the Things That We Want To". Mistrial, meanwhile, is wall-to-wall brutal. "No Money Down", "Video Violence", "New York City luh-uh-vers, Tell It To Your Heart!"

*Rock Sax? I'm glad you asked! Andre Ethier's Born of Blue Fog came out very late in 2008 and, just like Lou Reed's The Bells, is easily his best work to date. "Cop Killer", maybe the greatest song ever recorded by a Canadian, isn't a Body Count cover, but it does snatch a line from Jay-Z and it has rock sax, bringing this whole thing full circle. Thank you for coming, buy Born of Blue Fog.

EDIT: As Paul points out in the comments, the lyric to "The Bells" is, indeed, "Looking out he thought he saw a brook," according to Lou's Pass Thru Fire (via Google Books).