the first musical instrument i was able to call my own was a casio SK-10. i had a lot of laughs playing the demonstration songs and selecting a sampled sound instead of an existing preset. my finest moment was probably warping “heigh ho” so every instrumental part was replaced by a chorus of sampled voices saying “bum hair”.
i can still hear the intro in my head:
i got some interesting sounds out of sampling the television, and “wrote” my first real song on that keyboard — little more than a C major scale played forward with one finger and backward with the other, using a clarinet sound.
when i started to get more serious about making music and needed something with more than thirty three keys, we rented larger keyboards. through the back half of 1994 there was a new one every month, thanks to johnny smith. first there was a roland EP-9. then a kawai X40-D. then a few yamahas — a PSS-190 and a YPR-20.
(you don’t even want to know what kind of detective work was involved in figuring out what the model names were for all these keyboards more than two decades after the fact when i never made a note of any of them at the time.)
the first musical instrument i ever fell in love with was that kawai X40-D.
its “super 3D” speakers put out a huge sound, and the ad-lib function allowed me to press one key and trigger a bunch of flashy runs that made me sound like a virtuoso musician. better still, there were song “styles” built in with all kinds of different quirky personalities. while i was faking flash with my right hand, one finger on my left would lead the invisible band in auto-accompaniment mode, with buttons to trigger intros, outros, and fills.
without the manual or any music theory knowledge, i didn’t know anything about getting minor or diminished chords out of the single-finger auto-accompaniment, so everything was always in a major key. most of the songs i recorded during this period have me walking one finger up the keyboard without direction, getting a little carried away with the “fill” button, and not doing a whole lot of singing.
the song titles tend to outstrip the songs themselves for creativity. a few favourites: “kiss me honey, don’t sting me”, “the underwater jellyfish (they jump more than you think)”, and “beyond modern temptation”.
the other rented keyboards didn’t have any auto-accompaniment functions. they forced me to get a little better at playing without help. at the end of the year we stopped renting and i got my very first “serious” keyboard as a christmas present — a yamaha PSR-210.
a huge part of my musical education happened with this keyboard at my side (or in front of me, resting on the dinner table). for a full year i recorded with it almost nonstop, both with and without johnny smith as my musical other half. little by little i figured out how to make music that felt like an extension of myself without relying on the instrument’s artificial intelligence to fake it for me.
early in 1996 we got a clavinova CVP-59S. the week it took to show up after it was ordered was maybe the longest week of my life. there are few things i’ve looked forward to with such all-consuming fury. i have a vivid memory of taking time out from a grade school field trip at an ice skating rink — i couldn’t stand on ice skates anyway, never mind skate — to buy some nachos. i sat, and ate those cheesy chips, and all i could think was, “clavinova. clavinova. clavinova.”
in hindsight, the PSR-210 was a great companion, with enough interesting sounds under the hood to let me go a lot of different places. but the clavinova felt like a huge leap forward. i couldn’t believe how much richer and more realistic the drum sounds were. the piano sounds were meaty and robust. and it just felt good to play. like a real piano, only better — or so i thought.
a few synthesizers would join the fray later. the clavinova would be my main instrument for quite a while. even when i started to gain access to dedicated “studio” spaces (aka “rooms in houses”) and picked up more instruments, it remained an important tool.
for a long time i thought, “what would i ever need a real acoustic piano for? i’ve got the clavinova. it doesn’t need any maintenance.” it was always in tune. when i wanted to record, i didn’t need to worry about mic placement. all i had to do was plug it in. and it allowed me to record on its internal memory when i had an idea i wanted to get down fast.
here’s a small piece of “the things you love (are always the first to leave)”, a good two years before it became part of the finished song that showed up on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.
when i was working on THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE, the clavinova started to sound a little one-dimensional to me next to the other, more organic sounds i was recording. i worked around it by using either a wurlitzer or a fender rhodes in all the places i wanted the piano to go.
then i fell in love with a yamaha C5 grand at ouellette’s. i’d played acoustic pianos before. usually they were mediocre uprights or grands that weren’t very well cared for. this piano was different. it inspired me. it sang. for the very first time, i understood why you’d want to have the real thing around.
for about five days i was determined to own that piano, until it sunk in that it was prohibitively expensive, and there was no way we would ever be able to make room for it in this house. you’d have to climb on top of it just to get into the kitchen.
i was a little disappointed to have to shrink my dream. but i thought there had to be a vertical piano somewhere out there that would be good enough to give me at least a few gooey feelings, if not the full body orgasm i got from playing the C5.
in the late summer of 2008, operation “find a good upright instead” was set in motion. i played a whole slew of uprights in the store. the one i liked best was a YUS series yamaha. the price was a whole lot less insane than what the grand was going for, and it was a world away from the poorly maintained institutional uprights i was used to playing in classrooms and living rooms. the pearl river pianos were alright, but they sounded kind of cheap and tinny. this one had class.
when i told bob i was interested, he said, “can i give you some advice? wait about a week. i’ve got some new yamaha U1s coming in. that’s a nice piano, but if you like that one, you’re going to love the U1.”
i’ve never been the most patient person. when i want something, especially if it has anything to do with music, i want it last year. bob convinced me to sit tight.
that week was nothing like the the week twelve years before when i waited for my clavinova to come in. i was looking forward to trying out some pianos. i wasn’t expecting to hear anything that knocked my socks off.
when the day came, there were two U1s for me to try. i must have spent close to two hours moving from one to the other, trying to decide which one felt and sounded better. there were subtle differences. hard stuff to put into words.
the upright i was going to buy before bob told me to wait a little while was a nice piano. for not much more money, these were on another level. he was right. holding off was the right move.
after a lot of waffling, i settled on the U1 i wanted. my grandfather had just passed away, and after telling me he was writing me out of his will i was shocked to discover he either didn’t get around to making good on the threat or he’d been bluffing all along. i inherited enough to pay for that piano, almost down to the cent. it was surreal.
my U1 was delivered to the house a day or two later. somehow it sounded even better at home than it did in the wide open store. it was a game-changer for me, giving me a whole new appreciation for the first instrument i developed any kind of proficiency on. it isn’t an accident that the first album i recorded with this piano features it on sixteen of its twenty two songs.
that was the beginning of the end of my ability to play a digital piano, live or in any other setting, without feeling like too much soul was getting lost. if you grow up playing keyboards, i don’t think you can appreciate what a real piano gives you until you get the chance to play a good one. just playing a chord and holding the sustain pedal down with your foot or letting a few simple notes ring out is an almost otherworldly experience. there’s so much more living inside the sound than you could imagine. a real piano sounds alive in a way even the best digital pianos haven’t yet found a way to emulate.
nine years later, i’m still in love with this piano. it’s never felt like a compromise. as much as i lusted after that C5, my U1 has always felt like the piano i was meant to end up with. it’s added depth to my recordings that couldn’t have existed otherwise and been a great ally and songwriting tool.
ric was over here about a week ago, tuning it for the forty seventh time in its life. i snuck a picture as he was finishing up. even its guts look like art.
when i told him i still sometimes feel like i’m on my honeymoon with the piano, and it’s been fascinating to hear the tone mature over the years, ric said, “it’s at its peak. it’ll probably never sound better than it does right now.”
that got me thinking about the first song i recorded with the U1 — not the first song i wrote on it, but the first one i wrote specifically for it.
when i knew i was days away from getting my black and white beast, i wrote one last song on the clavinova so i’d have something to tackle as soon as the real deal showed up.
(i wasn’t kidding when i said i never put much thought into whether or not my face and hands were visible when i was using the camcorder to capture ideas and songs in the process of being written.)
the difference in sound when i was able to play the chords on a real piano for the first time almost knocked me over.
you know that thing i said about being impatient? i couldn’t even wait to get the piano tuned before i started recording with it. the factory tuning held up well enough that i didn’t mind a bit of drift. i propped the lid open, moved two neumann KM184s around until things sounded right, and that was it. i’ve been recording the piano the same way with the same mics ever since.
technically this was the first song recorded for AN ABSENCE OF WAY, though it didn’t end up on the album. i made at least four different mixes in rapid succession. i almost never do that. most of the time i’ll do a rough mix, take a look at what needs tweaking, do another mix or two for fine-tuning, and then move on.
in this case every mix was different. the first one had everything in it, the second had less glockenspiel, the third stripped away almost everything but piano and vocals, and the fourth featured most of the instruments minus electric guitar. none of them felt definitive. they all had elements i liked and didn’t like.
three years later i took another crack at it. i always felt the drums were a little weak, both sound-wise and performance-wise. i was expecting to mess with a lot of things, but adding a new, meatier drum track seemed to be all the song needed. i thought i was done.
about a month later, i listened again. all at once, everything sounded wrong. the drumming was too aggressive. i went back and tried it a lot of different ways. something more intricate with brushes. something more subdued with mallets. something more skeletal with sticks.
i thought about ditching the bass part and replacing it with some deep sustained organ notes. i tried recording some metallic bell-like synth sounds. i thought about ditching the triple-tracked vocals. i didn’t know what to do to get this song where it needed to be. the more i tried to change, the less sure i was of where i was supposed to go.
the thing that finally glued it all together was plugging in the alesis micron, playing some simple synth chords to shade what the piano was doing right at the point where the drums came in. i got rid of a lot of the electric guitar, threw out the drums altogether, kept the vocals and the original bass track, got rid of some wordless vocal harmonies near the end, and chopped out a little instrumental electric guitar/bass harmonics bit (i always liked it, but now it sounded a little superfluous).
after three years and far too many different mixes, at long last, the song felt just right.
it’ll probably end up on THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE. i’ve been picking away at that album here and there for ten years now. that’s a scary thought, but one of the benefits of taking such a long time to finish a gargantuan album is giving a song like this the time to find the clothes it wants to wear.
work continues on the next papa ghostface album, though my sleep issues and gord’s rotating work hours have slowed things down a little.
yesterday was our first session in a while. the last time we got together before this, we had plans to work on a specific song. then i started playing a random unrelated thing on an acoustic guitar, gord joined in, i started singing the lyrics for “be sorry” from SHOEBOX PARADISE, and our plans got chucked straight into the trash.
“be sorry” was one of our more accessible songs back in the day. it had a recognizable verse/chorus structure, the lyrics were pretty straightforward, and with a little more polish it might have sounded like something that could have made sense on college radio. it was also one of the songs we always liked best in our own catalogue of work.
whatever high school class i was pretending to pay attention in when i wrote the words, i had joe cocker’s version of “feelin’ alright” in my head. i thought we might do something with a similar good-time bluesy energy when it came time to set the words to music.
but songs have minds of their own, and they were trying to teach me that lesson even back then. the day i pulled out those lyrics in my little music room at the house on kildare, i started playing a descending chord progression on an electric guitar that was more indebted to “all along the watchtower” than joe cocker. gord came up with some inspired lead lines, playing through this cool little zoom pedal he had that’s sadly missing in action now, i found an appropriate drum pattern on the clavinova, and we got down to business.
i ditched a twisted bridge section mid-song because the lunacy no longer seemed to fit:
popsicle head in a european convict’s mind you don’t pay attention blood red blush in a rush of amputated loveless fear you don’t pay attention so kiss my head my hairless head kiss my head or i’ll make you pay kiss my head kiss my head number five your creation is terminated
what that randomness was supposed to mean is beyond me. i sang the first verse a second time at the end instead of trying to pancake those words into music that didn’t suit them, and then we improvised a long instrumental coda with some fun duelling guitar business.
slowing the song down and playing it in a different key seventeen years later wasn’t planned. it was just one of those happy accidents. the new music felt like it gave a little more depth to some of the simplest words i ever wrote. defiance turned to something weary and maybe a little wiser.
we got down the acoustic guitars. i added some bass. then we left it alone. i meant to record some singing and experiment with other sounds. i still haven’t done that.
when gord came over yesterday, he brought his old twelve-string with him. the idea was for both of us to play twelve-strings and see what happened. there was one problem: his axe is in rougher shape than i thought. the intonation is a mess, and the action is pretty stiff.
my own twelve-string has held up a lot better over the years. i gave it to gord, he slipped it into a tuning a little kinder to fingers that play the conventional way, and we tried adding it to this new version of “be sorry” in a few different places.
i’m not sure any of what we recorded is going to end up in the final mix when all is played and sung. still, it was nice to be reminded again that while this cheap washburn twelve-string might not be anything fancy, it sounds pretty nice when you stick a good mic in front of it. all i did here was aim a single pearlman TM-250 at the guitar and put it in omni.
i still need to mess with some video settings on the T5i and figure out how to get the best results in different lighting situations. this was shot in auto mode, with autofocus on, in a room that isn’t all that well-lit most of the time. i think the ISO got bumped up a bit to compensate. so it came out a little grainy.
but i have to say i’m enjoying this camera a lot. the autofocus seems to do a solid job of keeping the important things in focus. there’s no way i could ever shoot handheld with either of the flip cameras and get movement this smooth, either.
smells like the homestretch to me. if i can keep tackling at least a few songs a day, in about two weeks i should be finished. then i can finally make good on some packages i’ve been meaning to send to a few people for about six million years.
by now the number of unused and alternate tracks i’ve found for these songs is getting a little crazy. there are even a few alternate mixes i don’t remember making. here’s one of those.
i knew there was a percussion track i didn’t end up using for this little electronic mood piece, because it felt like it worked better as more of an ambient thing. i didn’t realize i went to the trouble of making a mix that included the beat just in case i decided to use it, though.
i still think the right mix ended up on the album, but it’s kind of neat to hear it like this. the aphex twin influence might be a little more pronounced in this mix.
all through high school, i wrote songs for assignments every chance i got. it made life more fun and kept me on my toes. i had the most success doing this when mrs. gilham — one of the few great high school teachers i had — was teaching english or french, finding endless ways to contort what were meant to be essays or oral presentations into musical shapes.
one time i stood in front of the class and strummed a mandolin while singing in french about celebrity endorsements. the song was called “les atheletes qui chante”. “je suis michael jordan,” went one bit. “j’aime les ball park franks.” another time, for a group assignment, i played the part of bill clinton. i was very attached to my pet pig, oinky, played by matt strukelj. when oinky died, i hit the play button on a CD player and moaned along to some insane instrumental music i recorded at home the night before.
i liked to think it kept things interesting, not just for me, but for the other students too.
in grade eleven one of the books my english class dug into was the catcher in the rye. we were supposed to write something while inhabiting the psyche of one of the characters in the story. i asked if i could write a song from the perspective of holden caulfield. mrs. gilham gave me the go-ahead.
i wrote a song called “holden on”, because bad puns are the best thing ever. it was a good excuse to mess around in a strange guitar tuning and to write in a voice that was a little different from whatever my typical songwriting voice was in those days.
i brought my crummy vantage acoustic guitar to school with me the next day, sat on top of an unattended desk in my first period english class, and sang my song. it went over well enough that some of my classmates asked if i could play it again at the end of the period. that blew my mind a little. i went through it a second time, put a little more energy into the vocal performance now that i was warmed up, and threw in a bit of “henry the horny hamster” from my x-rated christmas album before mrs. gilham shot me a look that said, “that’s as far as you go, pilgrim.”
the guitar came with me to my second period society class. sean lauria was one of the guys i shared that class with. he asked me what the deal was with the axe. i told him about my english assignment and “holden on”. he asked if he could hear it. i told him i’d already played it twice and wasn’t really up for playing it again.
he stuffed thirty or forty bucks into the front pocket of my shirt to try and convince me. i almost fell over. i handed the money back to him, laughing in disbelief. he wasn’t giving up, though. he talked ms. davis into letting me play the song for the class. so i sat on another desk that wasn’t taken and played it a third time, without quite the same intensity as before.
i only knew of one other person who ever talked their way into substituting a song for a writing assignment, and that was gord. it seemed almost poetic, since that was how we hooked up and became friends in the first place. the same year my english class was analyzing the catcher in the rye,his was reading animal farm. he wrote a song in the voice of boxer the horse — the most tragic character in the book.
for a while i only heard bits and pieces of the song. brodie johnston, who was in gord’s class when he debuted his ode to boxer, sang a few lines for me, substituting lyrics about his favourite running back for the parts he couldn’t remember. gord played part of it for me outside of school. but i didn’t hear anything close to the full thing for at least a few years.
most of the songs i wrote for school-related purposes were recorded in one form or another, but outside of a truncated instrumental reprise on WATER ONLY HATES ITSELF SILLY, “holden on” was never documented in any meaningful way. gord’s boxer song was another story.
in late 1999 amanda filmed a performance with her then-new 8mm camcorder. it has to be the first existing recording of the song, made just days before or after gord played the PG-rated version at school.
three years later i asked gord if he wanted to revisit it and give it a proper recording. he wrote out what he remembered of the words, changing some of them in the process. we got down a rough demo just to run through it, both of us playing electric guitar, gord singing through a cold that made him a temporary baritone.
and then we didn’t do anything more with it for fourteen years.
when we were bouncing ideas around for the followup to STEW, the boxer song came up. i learned gord never quite settled on a version he was satisfied with.
i finally got around to mixing the 2002 demo so we could both hear it again, muting my guitar part, since i didn’t think it added much.
we both felt this was the version to build on. it lost the anger and desperation that was there in the beginning and took on a more defeated, mournful quality, with gord improvising some words at the end about “sugarcane mountain” that sounded to me like the doomed horse’s dying dream.
we sat down and tried to work out where we could tighten things up without doing too much to alter the soul of the song, and i recorded a late night demo on my own that reflected the changes we made.
gord first had benjamin the donkey predicting boxer’s fate. a quick look at the source text revealed it was really wise pig old major who warned him he would be expendable once he’d given the last of his great strength. i tweaked that and a few other lines, but left most of the lyrics untouched.
we picked at it some more, experimenting with the length and placement of different sections until it felt right. an instrumental bit that had been forgotten for well over a decade was reinstated. brand new music was written for the “sugarcane mountain” coda.
recording it was pretty straightforward. we got down the acoustic guitars and then the rest fell into place pretty quick. there’s a bit of a different dynamic driving what we do now, though. in the past we never talked much about what we were doing. we just did it. now there’s much more of a dialogue happening, and we’re not afraid to make suggestions to each other.
when gord plays bass, he tends to throw in these great little jabs of unexpected melody. “situations” on STEW is a good example. the bass doesn’t just hold down the low end. it dances.
with this song, i thought the bass might be more effective during the 3/4 sugarcane mountain section if it wasn’t so busy. i asked gord to try a simple walking bass line without throwing in any fiddly bits. as for me, after i recorded a rough drum track gord said he felt playing with sticks didn’t really suit the song. i tried playing with brushes and everything started to feel a lot more open and dynamic.
we were both right.
it’s nice to be able to voice an idea or ask someone to try something a different way without having to worry about any egos getting bruised, because you know everything is being done in service of the music.
a great example of this philosophy in action: i assumed gord would want to handle the vocals here, since the song is really his baby and has been for a long time. he asked me to sing it instead. i did twist his arm into singing a bit of backup for the final “never gonna let you down” bit, but aside from that all the singing is me.
i really liked the acoustic guitar countermelodies i came up with for my demo. when it came right down to it, throwing those in the final recording would have made everything feel a little too cluttered. so that fell by the wayside. but there was still room for banjo and piano. as for the lap steel, that’s the 1950s “mother of toilet seat” magnatone first heard on AFTERTHOUGHTS. this might be that old beast’s best moment on record so far.
i thought it was about time i performed a bit of surgery on the rough mix that’s been sitting around for a while, because i’ve been wanting to make a little music video to go with the song. the moving pictures this time come to you from john halas and joy batchelor’s animated film version of animal farmfrom 1954 — secretly funded by the CIA! the last time i saw it was when my own english class read the book in 2000 or 2001, so i couldn’t remember how much of boxer was in there. as it turned out, there was more than enough material for what i wanted to do, including some moments that were more evocative than i was expecting them to be.
and there you have the near-twenty-year-long journey of a song that began life as a high school english assignment, from raw teenage howl to refined alt-folk, or whatever it wants to call itself now.
every once in a while it’s fun to type one of your own album or song titles into a search engine to see what pops up. sometimes you find out someone played one of your songs on their college radio show six years ago without you ever knowing. or maybe someone wrote about your music on their blog.
you find other things as well.
as i’ve mentioned a couple times now, i’ve been slowly picking away at remastering a whole slew of albums. at the moment i’m working on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS.
for years i’ve been meaning to tweak the packaging for this one. on the tray insert, beneath the place where the CD sits, there are several links to internet places that no longer exist, like my now-long-dead myspace and CBC radio 3 pages. the formatting of the booklet also came out a little wonky the first time around (that was my doing), and i wouldn’t mind fixing it now that i know a bit more about the whole graphic design thing.
i was just finishing up one last read-through of the redesigned booklet to try and catch any lingering typos before bringing the art files to minuteman press when i thought i’d punch the album title into google for no real reason. i don’t know what i thought i’d find, but i know i wasn’texpecting this.
the best way i can figure it, a few years ago this dude did an internet search to see if there were any albums out there with the name he wanted to give his EP. he must have ended up here, must have seen i’d already made an album with the same name, and then he must have decided not only was he going to keep the name, but he was going to steal my cover art while he was at it, to save himself the trouble of making his own.
either that, or he found his way here some other way, didn’t have that album title in his head to begin with, and decided he liked the name and the cover image enough to appropriate both of them.
here’s what the cover of my album looks like.
i’m the first one to admit it’s not some of my more creative work in the design department. i had the title kicking around for years but could never come up with an idea for an image that made sense with it. i was writing and recording the songs that make up this record in the middle of a pretty strange emotional time in my life, and when it came down to it, simple white text on a black background felt about right.
now here’s his album cover art.
i don’t claim ownership of any phrases in the english language. there are tons of albums and songs out there that share names, themes, chord progressions, lyrics…you name it. so if someone puts out an album or song that happens to have the same name as one of mine, even if it isn’t a straight coincidence, that doesn’t bother me. it’s bound to happen sooner or later.
this is another thing altogether. to rip off my existing cover art and then just tack your own name on it in a font that doesn’t begin to make sense with the one i used, with no credit given and no permission asked…that’s pretty lame. why the hell would anyone do that? it’s not even an interesting album cover to steal! it’s just text.
if you really feel a need to have cover art that looks similar to mine, at least use your own font and make something yourself that’s inspired by what i did. it would take you all of fifteen seconds. invest a minute or two of your life and you could probably come up with something better than what i did back in 2010.
i’m sure there are some people in the world who would find a way to interpret something like this as a warped compliment. i’m not one of them. i don’t like it when someone steals my shit. it’s not like he stole my songs, so i’m not livid about it. but i have to say the whole thing is a little weird to me. i don’t understand why anyone would go to the trouble of doing a thing like this. you steal an image that has nothing for the eyes to get lost in, you can’t even be bothered to copy it at a reasonable resolution, and then you type your name beneath the title and pretend it’s yours? really?
if i’d included my name on the cover along with the title of the album, i imagine he would have crossed it out and penciled his in above it, thinking no one would notice.
it’s a whole lot more rewarding to put a little thought and effort into creating a visual component to your music that’s yours, or even asking a talented friend to make you some art, than it is to steal something someone else has already done. believe me. try coming up with your own stuff. the rest of us do.
i don’t really fancy myself a mastering engineer of other people’s music. so it was a bit of a surprise when i got the call to master the first two shimmer demolition albums. adam is one of my very best friends, and i had a lot of fun working with his songs, trying to give them the extra volume and punch he was after without going too crazy.
for his third album he decided to go it alone on the mastering front. it’s been a long time coming, but i think the album is only a few weeks away from being released now.
a little over three years ago adam emailed me an MP3 of a song he’d just finished recording — the song that now serves as the album’s first single. as soon as its infectious wordless chorus kicked in and i started singing along, i knew i had to try to talk him into letting me sing on it.
his process is about as insular as mine is. he’s got his creative vision, and he knows how to get the sounds he’s after without anyone else’s help. i get that. but i heard a vocal harmony in my head, and i knew it would work if i got the chance to try it.
he was reluctant at first. i got him to give me a shot by promising if he didn’t like what i did he didn’t have to use it, and i wouldn’t be offended. we sat together in his basement and i sang into a microphone held together with duct tape.
i couldn’t hear myself in my headphones. you’d think that would help my pitch, but i didn’t sing all that well the first time through. the confidence wasn’t there.
i asked adam if he could mute his own vocal tracks. i gave it another shot and pretty much got what i was after. we doubled that. then i threw in a high third-part harmony at the end. we doubled that too. i could feel adam making a slow transition from thinking, “i’m not so sure about this,” to, “maybe it was a good idea after all.”
he made a rough mix and we listened to it upstairs five times before ordering pizza. i did sitting arm pushups with his cat nemo on my lap, and nemo winked at me because he liked the song and my singing on it. at least that’s what i told myself then, and it’s the story i’m sticking with now.
the third-part harmony that came in on the last chorus made me visualize a music video that ended with us dressed up in suits and ties, adam ahead of me, standing outside the bedroom window of the object of his affection, singing to her without words because there weren’t any right ones for the feeling being expressed and “ah” was the only one that would do, so we both opened wide and sang it out.
it was a good enough mental music video for me to put in regular rotation for a while. i realized it was a cliché — the whole “singing at your star-crossed lover’s window” thing. but the music took it somewhere sweet and heavy, almost making it new again.
eight years ago i sang a bit of harmony on a song that ended up on an album the artist now likes to pretend never existed. that was very much a spur of the moment thing. this was different. i had an idea, and thanks to adam i got to run with it, and got to be a small part of what i think is one of the best songs he’s written. of the few vocal cameos i’ve had on the albums of others so far, this is my favourite one.
amanda dug up another four tapes. after spending more than two hundred bucks having her whole collection transferred, i’m no closer to having that papa ghostface footage i’ve been chasing than i was a little less than twenty years ago when i started chasing it. i would bet anything it isn’t lost or dead, but buried somewhere in a garage or at the bottom of a box of random things, waiting to be rediscovered in the next century when human cloning is all the rage and no one knows which generation of themselves they are anymore.
there is one last hope. it’s the longest of long shots, but i know a second video recording exists — or used to exist — of the same live performance i thought we’d unearth somewhere on one of amanda’s tapes. i know because i sat in a classroom a month or two after it was filmed and watched it. i just don’t know who made the tape.
i do know who might be able to answer that question. as unlikely as it is that they would remember who was manning the camera seventeen years ago, and as even-more-unlikely as it is that the tape is sitting around waiting for me to find it with its head crowned by a halo of heavenly light, it’s worth a try.
i have a realistic view of the situation. i’m pretty sure all of this has been for nothing. i just don’t want to give up until i’ve exhausted every possibility.
like i said before, i did end up getting my hands on some great archival material. so it hasn’t really been a pointless effort. it’s just that the footage i want most of all continues to elude me, like the whole thing is a sick little cosmic joke designed to make me swear even more than i usually do.
what else is new? the remastering thing keeps moving along, sort of. 121 songs done now. 67 left to do. if i really dig in, i can probably have it all done inside of a few weeks. it’d be nice to get that taken care of so i can devote all my brainpower to this album i’m supposed to be finishing.
here, for no real reason, is a little song that was filmed ten years ago at the old house and then never recorded or revisited. i miss that shirt. it kept getting rattier and rattier, until by 2011 i don’t think the sleeves existed anymore. check out my dresser mirror reflecting all those empty water bottles lined up like soldiers on a bookshelf.
sometimes, after chasing something for a very long time, you think you’ve managed to catch up to it and dig your fingers into its shoulder blades. then you press down a little harder and notice what you thought were shoulders are your own kneecaps, and you’re not wearing any pants.
this is one of those times.
pretty much nothing i thought was going to be on that stack of 8mm tapes was there. that’s both good and bad.
as i was expecting, there’s footage here i never knew existed. what i thought was going to be a party at gord’s from 2002 is instead a triple-header of a house show from late 2001, with a set from punk band kanada sitting right in the middle of the musical sandwich. it always felt like they were kind of given short shrift in the music scene, so it was a great surprise to stumble onto some video of them doing their thing back when we were all skinny teenagers.
a tape i thought was going to have random high school footage on it instead has some moments from the night of our graduation. another tape i was positive would be a recording of a bar show is instead a ton of footage of SEED OF HATE being recorded at the old walker power building. i remember a camera being there, but i only ever saw about two minutes of video and assumed not much more than that was filmed.
there’s enough raw footage to put together a grimy documentary about the making of the album from start to finish, if i wanted to do a thing like that. there are a lot of fun moments in there, including the revelation that recording the guitar and bass tracks direct instead of mic’ing up the amps wasn’t the plan all along. i’ve been remembering that wrong all these years. instead, it was a last-minute move made to counteract too much bleed and not enough microphones. and the band didn’t record piecemeal, but together as a unit, live-off-the floor, with the exception of the vocals and some guitar overdubs that were added later. i’ve been remembering that wrong too.
but then there’s this: none of those papa ghostface performances are included in any of the eight hours of footage culled from these tapes. there are some pretty amusing bits from me, with some non-sequiturs i don’t remember ever dishing out, but there’s almost no footage of me playing music in any capacity. for the most part i’m only recording it, or sitting in the audience watching it happen.
i say “almost” because one of the surprise finds on these tapes is a casual little jam session with me and tyson running through bits and pieces of about half a dozen different GWD songs. it isn’t true band footage, because gord is filming instead of playing bass, and what little singing i do is not trying very hard to be serious. still, i was pretty sure this stuff was filmed on tyson’s camera and i’d never get to see it again. i’m happy to be proven wrong, and ecstatic to have another small piece of video documentation from that musical period fall into my lap.
after the fifteen-year chase and the money i spent having the tapes transferred, finding out the things i most wanted to see weren’t there was a bit of a kick in the teeth. don’t get me wrong. i’m grateful for what i’ve got here. there’s some great archival material i never thought i’d get my hands on, a lot of it looks and sounds better than i thought it would, and i’ll be able to do some fun things with it. but it’s hard not to be a little disappointed.
to amanda’s credit, she’s said she’ll take another look at her collection of tapes and see if there are any others she thinks i might be on. so it isn’t an “all hope is lost” situation yet. there’s still a chance.
whatever happens, i can’t thank her enough for opening up the archives and allowing me to travel back in time about sixteen years. thank jack russell terriers she was either around for these adventures or willing to let someone borrow her camera so they could be documented. some of this stuff is absolute gold.
in the meantime, please enjoy kanada testing the limits of how much volume a camcorder’s built-in microphone is capable of handling while raising your glass of ginger ale to my clean-shaven bandana-wearing cameo and a black-haired, near-unrecognizable joey desroches on drums.
wherever you are now, christine kowala, i want you to know i still love you and your batman shirt.
another bittersweet hindsight moment here: everyone who was in my band at the time was at this show. we wrapped up the last full band recording session for GOOD LUCK IN THE NEXT LIFE earlier that same day. we could have easily played a set and made the house show a quadruple-header.
while our music might not have fit in with the punk, metal, and hardcore grind, i’m pretty sure the people we were hanging out with would have been open-minded enough to give what we were doing a fair shake. and then we’d have a full GWD live set on video, with me doing more than just reacting to some guitar feedback during someone else’s soundcheck.
failing that, i could have at least recorded some of these shows. my rig was pretty portable in those days and more than adequate for capturing loud live music. then i’d be able to sync this video, and others like it, with some high quality audio.
the idea never entered my mind.
i’ve had about all the smelly not-to-be potpourri i can handle lately. i need a time machine already, so i can confront some of these oversights, punch ’em in the mouth, and give ’em overbites.
since my brain moves in strange ways, when i was navigating the initial disappointment of realizing the footage i most wanted to see wasn’t on these tapes, i thought i’d really wallow in it by revisiting some past disappointment. double your displeasure, double your pun.
in the late summer of 2011 i played a set at the shores of erie wine festival. to date, it’s the last time i’ve played a solo show. it was such a horrible experience it kind of made me never want to do it again.
everything that could have gone wrong that day didgo wrong. i found out the sustain pedal for my rented keyboard was dead minutes before my set started. the one person i knew who had a sustain pedal i might be able to borrow was also playing that day, but she’d just made it pretty clear she didn’t care about me at all when i thought we’d spent the better part of that summer becoming close friends.
you could say there was some tension there. and i wasn’t about to try and break it by asking for a favour.
if that wasn’t enough to set an ominous tone, i wasn’t used to playing on a stage that big, cut off from the audience to the point that it barely felt like they were there. i couldn’t hear any of their applause. it didn’t feel like i could interact with them. not that there were many people to interact with anyway. there wasn’t much of a turnout that early in the day. but losing that feeling of intimacy threw me off.
add to that the people shovelling mulch in front of the stage while we played (i thought it was manure at first) and the feeling that it was too early for my voice or my fingers to be awake enough to cooperate with me, and it was a recipe for a bad time all the way around.
the worst part was having to perform without a sustain pedal. i had no idea how integral that little thing was to the way i played piano until it wasn’t there anymore. as it was, playing a digital piano live when i’d been spoiled by the grand piano at mackenzie hall and my upright at home was a little uninspiring, with all the sensitivity i was losing. but i could have dealt with that just fine if i had a working sustain pedal. without it, i had to rethink every song on the fly, everything i’d rehearsed went out the window, and my piano-playing became more of a reluctant intellectual exercise than anything, testing what i could and couldn’t do with no margin for error.
it was one of those shows where nothing feels like it’s working, you don’t enjoy being up there, and when it’s over you’re glad you forgot to tell the audience what your name was, because it would be embarrassing if anyone thought what they heard was an accurate representation of what you sound like when things are going well.
there’s video of the whole performance. i ignored it for years, not wanting to relive the experience. almost six years later, when i was feeling low about the lack of 8mm papa ghostface glory, i decided to subject myself to it for the first time.
i listened to the audio on its own so i wouldn’t have to see the mulch flying around. i didn’t cringe. in some places, against all the odds, i found myself thinking, “for feeling on the day like my singing and playing was garbage, this isn’t all that bad.”
i can’t believe i’m about to type this, but after being pretty positive the mackenzie hall performance of “a fine line between friendship and baked goods” from earlier the same summer was always going to be the definitive version of the song, i think this one might give it a run for its money.
it’s a little more far-reaching, with bits of “here comes the rain again”, “out of touch”, and “state trooper” getting tossed into the blender, along with a brief callback to the “i put a spell on you” section first improvised at mackenzie hall (only the first of these musical inserts was rehearsed; the rest were spontaneous). some of the melodic ideas from the long improv section in that version are revisited here, including another quote from “rondo alla turca”. there’s also a whole lot of improvised stuff unique to this performance that i don’t remember ever playing. and the line i forgot to sing in the first verse at mack hall doesn’t get dropped this time.
all i know is, i’m liking it, when i never thought i would — never thought i’d even want to hear it again. if for whatever reason i don’t end up ever playing another solo gig, i don’t think this was such a bad note to end on after all.
out of great disappointment a mound of focaccia bread sometimes rises, i guess is what i’m trying to say here.
this is what a MiniDV tape looks like after its casing has been disassembled and the guts pulled out.
when i was just getting started importing all these old tapes, one of them decided to jam up on me after being rewound to the beginning. i was able to get it out of the camera, but there was no way to get it to play after that.
bob at unique video systems took the thing apart, transferred the tape into a new casing, made a splice to fix the part at the beginning that went janky, and all the ideas preserved therein got to live to fight another day.
if you need any video-related work or repairs done in windsor, bob is your guy. to say he knows his stuff would be a bit like saying the sun is hot and if you got close enough to touch it you might lose a finger.
now this righthere…this is the holy grail.
you know how a few posts ago i broke down a list of video footage different people shot of me over the years that i didn’t have in my possession? and you know how i mentioned some early papa ghostface footage filmed back in our high school days?
this is that, and a whole lot more.
i’ve been trying here and there for fifteen years now to gain access to this material. a few days ago i thought i’d give it one last shot. i reached out to amanda, gord’s high school girlfriend. she’s the one who filmed this stuff.
i wasn’t even sure the tapes still existed. it’s been almost two decades since the earliest of them was filmed. things get lost or thrown out over that period of time. it just happens.
she sent me a picture so i could see she’d kept the tapes and they were still intact. she said she wasn’t positive which ones we were on, because her camera didn’t work anymore and she never really documented the contents of her tapes, but she was able to narrow it down to seven possibilities. if i was willing to share copies of the digital transfers with her, she’d be glad to let me have them.
as of today, i have those seven tapes. there isn’t just vintage papa ghostface footage on them from a time when i had short hair and a beard was nothing but a distant hope in my head. there are house shows fetal pulp and ADHD played at. there are candid moments from the times amanda brought her camera to school. there’s…i don’t even know what, to be honest with you. there could be footage of me and people i went to walkerville with in here that i didn’t know existed. there probably is.
it goes without saying that i’d love to have the video tyson shot of the band in late 2001 and early 2002. knowing how easy it would have been to pop a tape in my VCR and hit record each time he hooked his camera up to my TV so we could watch what he’d filmed makes me want to go back in time and throttle myself for not thinking to do that when it counted.
in a way this is even better. beyond a few things i’m pretty positive are here, i don’t know what i’m going to see. i get to be surprised.
after spending a good few years getting used to the idea that i’d never get to see any of this again, i get to go see bob on monday and talk to him about transferring all the tapes onto DVD (i’d make the transfers myself, but these are 8mm tapes and i don’t have the necessary equipment). i’m still trying to wrap my head around that. i thought i was doomed, and here i am waiting for the weekend to disappear so i can dive even deeper into the past than my own camcorder tapes have allowed me to.
never underestimate the power of dogged persistence, right?
when someone finds out i went to a catholic grade school, they tend to think of uniforms, jesus overload, and outstretched hands stung red by rulers.
it wasn’t really anything like that.
there were no uniforms. the christianity was there, but it wasn’t force-fed to us. we went to church sometimes. we read the bible. we were also respected as individuals and left to work out what we thought of it all for ourselves.
instead of berating us for not being better christians or trying to scare us with stories about the horrors of hell, our priest told us god wanted us to be happy and enjoy our lives. he sang harmonies to hymns instead of singing the melodies straight. he was a baritone. “lamb of god,” we would sing, “you take away the sins of the world,” and while he was tracing out a countermelody, my best friend pete would be sing-shouting the words like the hymn was a metallica song, screwing his face up into a look of exaggerated intensity that was so funny i thought i might die from trying to laugh in church without making a sound.
pete would probably still sing “agnus dei” just like that. it’s part of what makes him pete. this is a guy who slow-danced with his mother to lynyrd skynyrd’s “simple man” at his wedding, and it was one of those perfect moments you get lucky enough to witness every so often, because it was so him.
my high school was walkerville — walkerville collegiate institute, if you want to call it by its big boy name. walkerville had (and still has, as far as i know) a celebrated arts program. for eons it’s been touted as a place for musicians, actors, writers, and artists in any medium to thrive.
it had nothing on st. william catholic elementary school, where i was taught to be myself, to be inventive, to think outside the box. at walkerville i was expected to live in the box, with nothing but a few ragged holes for air and the odd muffled sound of someone walking by to remind me there was life outside the cardboard, until i got fed up and started tearing through it with my teeth. i was not a rebel by nature. high school warped me into one through the sheer force of its bullshit and my resistance to it, which was more instinct than anything.
in the fourth grade, mr. janisse told us about the family allowance — more commonly known as the “baby bonus”. he explained its history and purpose, explained how brian mulroney’s government wanted to abolish it, and then opened up the floor for all of us to weigh in with our thoughts. i don’t remember what i said, but i got pretty fired up about it, railing against mulroney’s shortsightedness.
think about that for a second. we had a political discussion in grade four,and all of the students were treated as intellectual equals. find me a catholic school — or any elementary school at all — where that happens now, and i will eat my own chin.
my sixth grade class wrote our own play about decision-making. mr. giannetti suggested a riff on the twilight zone. six or eight of us who were up for the challenge committed to it, and we created our own characters and wrote our own dialogue, workshopping out in the hall, bouncing off of one another, improvising, testing things out. i don’t know what was running through anyone else’s head. i thought it was thrilling.
mr. giannetti offered advice and ideas when we got stuck, but he left us to determine the final shape of the thing. he did make the suggestion that i could be a rod serling type character, framing the story, offering exposition, and part of my shtick could be an oral fixation. there i’d be, looking suave, clutching a lollipop.
my suit was a loaner from an adult. i was going through a growth spurt that didn’t seem like it was ever going to end, so it just about fit. the sunglasses were my own. the lollipop was a red tootsie pop.
i still don’t know how many licks it takes to get to the motherlode of chewy goodness inside.
what we came up with was a morality tale called the decision zone. there were two performances. one was during the day for the rest of the school to see. the other was an evening show for our parents.
at the late show we stretched things out, took more chances, improvised more of the dialogue, and got a little more “adult”. somewhere someone has a decaying VHS tape of that performance, with my closing narration making room for a spontaneous rant about taking my kids to the lollipop factory only to leave appalled by the mediocrity of the modern lollipop and its desecration at the hands of soulless capitalists.
the body of the story followed a court case. the finer details left my memory a long time ago. i think kyle jaques might have been a court clerk? i know ashley coulter was the judge. i’ll never forget pete walking into the “courtroom”, hiking up his pants past any sane place, presenting her with a bouquet of flowers, and slipping into a high-pitched, nasal voice to announce, “beautiful flowers for a beautiful lady!”
it took everything we had not to crack up onstage along with the audience.
in grade seven i got to be the bad guy in a christmas play called the villain and the toy shop. my character’s name was mr. glowerpuss. now there’s a name you can sink your teeth into. i borrowed someone’s cane, put on a fake moustache and a black fedora, and someone came up with the idea of massaging baby powder into my hair to make it look grey.
i acted in a lot of grade school plays. it kind of became my thing. one time i was a jamaican guru who helped a group of stranded explorers. that play ended with everyone singing rod stewart’s “sailing”. i owe ms. george a lifelong debt of gratitude for introducing me to the greatness of “i’ll take you there” by the staple singers, which served as our musical introduction if i remember right.
in another play we wrote ourselves, i did my best impersonation of mr. giannetti. jeremy head electrocuted me with jumper cables when i started choking on hard candy, shouting, “he’s blowing chunks!” as the curtain came down to end the first act. gary collins inhabited a low-rent james bond-type character named dan ger, with a soft g (“the name’s ger…dan ger”).
over the years i got to be everything from a solemn offstage narrator to the high-strung southern father of a fugitive played by matt brown. but playing the main antagonist in that one christmas play was my proudest moment. i got to chew scenery and cackle the most evil, maniacal laugh i could come up with. i loved it.
when you’re a kid you tend to look forward to your time away from school. for me, school was the escape. i wasn’t living with the father person yet. things at home were…well, i’ll just tell you i was breaking out in hives and developing the beginning of an ulcer when i was thirteen because of the emotional strain, and let you fill in the blanks.
on the days i didn’t get to see my padre and musical other half, school let me forget about what i was afraid to go home to for a little while. it gave me a place where i could be as weird as i wanted to be without being made to feel like there was something wrong with me.
in grade eight i showed up for school every day dressed like a stockbroker. by then the way i looked was the only thing in my life i felt i had any control over. i liked to dress up. it made me feel good about myself. that my self-imposed dress code and emphasis on immaculate grooming would somehow become an act of rebellion tells you all you need to know about the absurd atmosphere i was living in.
some days i walked around with a bulky old cassette recorder, documenting snatches of conversation, amusing moments from other students, and song ideas. no one ever told me to put it away. no one at school made fun of me for the way i dressed. about the only thing i ever heard about it was, “you look nice today, john.”
brandi rivait wrote in my yearbook, “johnny, don’t wear dress pants and a suit in ninety degree weather! please! you’ll get sunstroke!” but i think she was only looking out for me.
i showed up dressed the same way for my first day at walkerville. before the end of lunch recess someone outside my field of vision whipped a glass bottle at me that just missed my head and screamed, “FUCKING FAG!”
welcome to your new liberal arts school.
i went into high school thinking it wouldn’t be too much different from grade school, where in the sixth grade we listened to the o.j. simpson verdict being read live on the radio and talked about it after, where i made great friends and scared one of the few borderline bullies stupid when i slammed his head against a brick wall after he stole my winter hat one time too many, where i learned how to snap my fingers but not how to whistle, where i cheated on a test just once and the look of disappointment on my french teacher’s face when she caught me was all the punishment i needed (i never thought about cheating again), where i learned CPR only to forget most of the salient bits in a matter of days, where i said something dirty to a girl who was going through a mean phase in front of my entire class and won the student of the month award for politeness a week or two later, where we were educated about grammar, racism, sex, and everything in-between.
in stark contrast to that, high school taught me only one real thing, and i don’t think it was the intended lesson: there’s a lot of stupidity and hypocrisy in the world, and if you choose not to buy into it, you become an insurgent in spite of yourself.
all of my st. william brethren moved on to st. anne’s after graduation. i went from knowing every soul in my school in the eighth grade to knowing no one my freshman year of high school. it was disconcerting, and a little lonely. i settled in and made friends after a while, and i had some twisted adventures, but out of the forty or so different teachers i must have had at walkerville, i can count the good ones on one hand. a few were wonderful. most of them were just kind of there. a few were incompetent, abusive, and so negligent i was amazed they managed to hold onto their jobs.
at st. william it was different. i don’t know if the teachers had a tacit agreement with the principal, or if they were all just left to do their own thing, but i don’t think more than one or two of them paid too much attention to whatever the curriculum was supposed to be, or else they created it themselves. they seemed to tailor their lessons to us. almost every one of them felt like a friend, and the feeling hung around long after they’d stopped teaching me. the few times i came back to visit after graduating, it felt like coming home.
our teachers were interested in who we were and who we were going to be. they wanted to do what they could to help us grow in whatever direction we wanted to grow. i don’t remember ever being condescended to, or anyone telling me, “you know, this passion you have for music isn’t all that realistic.”
walkerville even managed to kill my love of acting. it was a ninth grade production of peter pan that did it. during rehearsals a lot of the actors and dancers would talk and joke around with me. sometimes when nothing was going on a group of us would walk to tim hortons to get some coffee or something to eat. i felt there was something there to grab onto.
when we were finished with the play, all the camaraderie evaporated. i would see one of the dancers or one of my acting buddies in the hall, i would say hello to them, and they would look at me for a moment like i was a door-to-door salesman with some awful, disfiguring infectious disease. after registering their disgust, they would ignore me.
the message was clear: i wasn’t cool enough for them to acknowledge once they were no longer obligated to.
a little later, when i started sharing my CDs and performing music at assemblies, all those people decided i was cool enough to talk to after all. funny how that works.
i guess you could say grade school showed me what people were capable of when they were committed to being the best versions of themselves, and then high school tore all that down and introduced me to the fickleness and mixed messages i would have to navigate throughout my adult life.
instructive? yeah, sort of. fun? not so much.
this isn’t really about all that, though. i have too many stories to tell, and you have a finite amount of time left in your life. this is about one afternoon in grade eight when i felt i knew, if only for an instant, what it was like to be one of the beatles during the crazed height of their fame.
for a long time i pretty much kept my music to myself. i think there were two things behind that. the first thing was not giving a whole lot of thought to sharing it. i made it because there was something inside that needed to be expressed, and because it gave me joy. using it as a means of generating attention was never a consideration. the second thing was maybe being a little shy about it, not thinking i was good enough to get anyone interested in what i was doing even if i wanted to try.
i almost went out for the talent show in grade seven, but playing a song out of a book didn’t hold much appeal, and i was still in the early stages of the on/off piano lessons that would do little more than force me to get a lot better at picking things up by ear to make up for my lack of facility when it came to trying to make sense of all those dots and dashes and squiggles on the page. so whatever i might have done had i gathered up the courage to go through with it, it wouldn’t have been too impressive. and it wouldn’t have really been me.
in grade eight the urgency of the moment convinced me to swallow my nerves and grab the mechanical bull by the plastic junk. high school and the unknown were right around the corner. i wasn’t going to get many more chances to perform in front of all these people i’d grown up with — to share this part of myself with them.
the music i was making had grown a little more refined and conventional by now. maybe in hindsight it was sometimes, in some ways, a little less compelling than what i was doing back when i was still trying to suss out things like harmony and structure, stumbling onto unorthodox chord voicings, twisting my limitations into idiosyncratic strengths without having any idea what i was doing most of the time.
the music would get consistently weird again soon enough. in the meantime, i had more confidence now that i felt i knew my way around the piano better. that made all the difference.
the culmination of this surge in confidence was bringing a pile of home-recorded tapes with me on our week-long grade eight year-end field trip that took us to ottawa and toronto. i’d be playing one of those tapes with johnny smith himself sitting next to me on the bus (a handful of parents acted as chaperones/group leaders), someone would ask what i was listening to, they’d perk up when i told them it was me, and the walkman would get passed around all over the place.
the most memorable moment came when the headphones made their way to victoria gunn. i asked what song she was listening to. “all i know,” she said, “is your dad’s singing something about a t-rex.”
(that would have been “no luck”, a deep album cut on return to innocence.)
but before the field trip, there was the talent show. mrs. howell was running the thing. i auditioned for her in a room with a dozen other students, playing the school’s old upright piano, belting out “evil woman”. i was a bit of an electric light orchestra nut at the time.
i asked if it would be alright if i played two songs at the show. she said that was fine. only about half as many kids had come out to audition as the year before, so there was some room to play with.
my second song would be an original, and the one i chose to play was something called “duty-free”, which was…not very representative of the music johnny smith and i were making as the west team. almost all our songs were improvised as they were recorded. “duty-free” was something i wrote, with the words on paper and the music mapped out and hammered down. i can’t remember why i went for that tune. maybe it was a simple case of recognizing that it had some pep and was fun to play.
agnes wnek provided the initial spark. i had a crush on her the size of a small country. one day she said to me, “we should write a song together. i’ve got some words for you.”
they went like this:
i’m duty-free they can’t sell me alky i’m underage and besides, i can’t afford it i’m on minimum wage
i took the first line and ran with it, treating it as a punchline before the joke and an excuse for some wordplay over a pretty simple bluesy vamp. while the result wasn’t a masterpiece by any means, following up “temptation overcomes common sense” with a line about michigan’s public spitting laws is the kind of oddball turn that still appeals to me today. and all the talk of one-night stands is sort of hilarious, coming from someone who didn’t even know what first base was.
it says something that i never gave “duty-free” another serious thought after its one live performance, and it only got something close to a proper recording when “dust in the wind” (the on/off piano teacher) wanted to record me playing one of my songs with his DAT machine as an experiment and i thought it would be fun to revisit it. it was more of a novelty song to me than a meaningful piece of music.
i think you need to hear a little bit of what constituted “serious” music for me at the time to understand what i mean. so here are two songs that were recorded a few weeks before the talent show, from an album called kaput.
our west team songs were an unpredictable stew that mixed up events and characters from our lives, toilet humour, philosophy, and pure fiction. though there were some solo pieces here and there, most of what we did involved a tag-team dynamic. one of us would start singing, setting the scene, and then we’d take turns filling in the finer details. i’ve said this before, and it’s worth repeating: the thing that never stops being surprising to me every time i pull out an old tape, even just to hear a song or two, is how varied this music is. the songs go a lot of different places.
my favourite go-to song shape in those days was the dark psychodrama. there’s some pitch black music on these tapes that wrestles with madness, isolation, and broken relationships, at a time when you’d probably expect to hear me singing about crushes on girls and hating homework. there is a little bit of that in the odd song like “my dad ate my homework”, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
some of our best songs were the ballads, and very few of them were typical love songs.
here’s the thing: pubescent me did not like to play it straight when hanging out in ballad territory. at all. in any given song you’d get johnny smith singing something tender and sweet, and then i’d come in and start wailing about dirty bras in laundry baskets (“julie, are you listening?”), the lonesome plight of a vacuum cleaner salesman (“just a dream”), or escaping the pain of a failed romance through prostitution (“caroline”).
there were plenty of songs that didn’t take themselves too seriously to begin with. take the third track on the kaput cassette, for example:
early in 1997 i discovered the auto-accompaniment built into the clavinova keyboard that served as my main creative workstation at the time. before that, if i wanted drums in a song, i would set up a split mode and have piano or whatever keyboard sound i wanted on the right side and bass or strings on the left to fill in the low end. then i would trigger a drum pattern and go to town.
with the auto-accompaniment engaged, i could play chords with my left hand and lead an invisible band. those drum patterns i thought i knew so well developed all kinds of new wrinkles, and all at once i had access to musical backdrops that were much more fleshed-out.
it got a little stale once i’d gone through every available style and all its variations. eventually i started stripping away most of the extra sounds aside from bass and put the keyboard in a different mode that would allow me to play without using a split, the invisible bassist following me wherever i went, freeing up both of my hands to do whatever they wanted. but for a good few months there i revelled in all the new sounds.
here i went for an imaginary dixieland jazz band, alternating between playing what was supposed to sound like a clean, tremolo-kissed electric guitar with the right hand and messing with the new (to me, at the time) arp omni-2 that was sitting on top of the clavinova.
on songs like this we could both let loose with whatever random weirdness popped into our heads. when it came to the ballads, things were a little different. johnny smith became the resident straight man, and i became more of the resident basket case.
there were exceptions. one of them came near the end of the first side of the same tape. i came up with an idea using another sound that was meant to emulate a guitar. this time it was supposed to be a steel-string acoustic.
“we should start recording this,” johnny smith said. “don’t change a thing,” he added, knowing i had a hard-on for those auto-accompaniment sounds, knowing too that the virtual band wasn’t needed here.
“no strings attached,” i said, and we had a title before we had a song. he hit the record button while i was still playing. then this happened.
what you have here is an example of something i listen to now, after not hearing it for twenty years, and think, “how on earth did we improvise that?” this was at a time in my life when i thought lyrics were always supposed to rhyme. so there’s that. but the song tells the story of a life seen in snapshots through someone else’s eyes. the music moves through different sections and shifts in intensity.
none of it was written. i had the little lick that introduces the song and recurs through the verses, and that was it. beyond that, it was all made up on the spot, like almost all of our music was. we took turns picking up the thread of the narrative as we were both discovering what it was.
we were both excited about what we came up with when we were finished recording it. it was one of a number of songs that felt like catching lightning in a bottle. but time and distance have a way of making some things seem better than they really were. you return to something like this hoping the music lives up to your memory of it, not knowing how reliable that memory is given all the dust caked into its face.
i was not expecting to be as affected by this one as i am two decades after the fact. there are well over a thousand west team songs on tape, and not too many outright stinkers in my opinion, but songs like this are special. i mean, if someone wanted to play this at my funeral, my well-dressed ghost would not object — though i think just as strong a case could be made for “the sack of symphony”.
(and if you’re wondering, yes, the sack in question is a scrotum.)
see, this is why i’ve resisted listening to too much of this stuff until i commit to digitizing every tape we ever made. there’s so much there, most of it is music i haven’t heard since it was recorded, and a lot of it has the capacity to surprise me and move me and crack my shit up even now. if i step too far into the musical past, i might get lost in there and not want to come back to work on all the things i’m excited about in the present.
anyway, back to the talent show.
i don’t know why i didn’t play the old upright like everyone else who played piano did that day. we rented a fancy yamaha keyboard from ouellette’s and i played that thing instead. i would give half the hair on my legs and maybe a toe or two in exchange for some video footage i could share here now. i don’t think any exists. i don’t remember seeing anyone in the audience, parent or teacher, with a video camera.
there was someone taking photographs. here’s one that ended up in the yearbook.
if the school had a mic stand, it was either missing in action that day or i couldn’t get it positioned right. michael greff stood in front of the rented keyboard and held a microphone in the place a stand would have kept it fixed in an ideal world. if you’re out there somewhere, mike, i owe you one for going beyond the call of duty and doing it with a smile on your face.
i at least had the foresight to ask johnny smith to bring that bulky old tape recorder with him (different from the one we used to record our albums). he sat in the gym with the other parents and captured the whole show on cassette, dance numbers, announcements and all.
it needs to be said: the recording is very lo-fi. it makes our albums from the same period — themselves captured using the invisible microphone built into a consumer-grade tape recorder — sound like million dollar studio productionsin comparison. the mic i was singing into was patched into the PA system. for some reason the keyboard didn’t get the same treatment, left to sink or swim on the strength of its built-in speakers. so my singing is a lot louder than my playing, and it’s not one of the more pristine audience recordings you’ll ever hear by a long shot.
still, i’m grateful to have an audio record of that day.
i played my first song pretty early in the show. i was sitting on the floor at the back of the gym with my classmates, trying to ignore the butterflies eating at the inside of my stomach, when mrs. howell said this and i did a mental double-take.
the first thing that stunned me was the way she was talking about me. this was not someone given to doling out praise. i had no idea she had that kind of respect for me as a musician. it really threw me.
the second thing that stunned me was the way everyone went nuts as soon as she said my name. she had to shush them to finish introducing me.
i went up there, played “evil woman”, got the whole school to sing along, and when i was finished the applause was so loud, i’m convinced it would have parted my hair if i hadn’t put enough gel in it that morning to keep it frozen in place through a hurricane. it was insane.
i came back later to close out the “talent” portion of the show before mrs. hale got up onstage with her praise group to sing catchy songs about jesus and stuff. hey man, don’t knock “glory to god” until you’ve heard it. that stuff gets stuck in your head.
i grafted my little intro/interview with johnny smith to the beginning of the song, even though that bit was recorded before any of the talent show performances happened, because i’m weird. dig the faux-british accent that develops and then disappears with no fanfare. and then dig the sound of everyone going apeshit. you can’t even hear the end of the song. it gets swallowed up by the screaming, and then the tape cuts out, almost making it seem like the audience went on making that sound forever.
i’ve had a few surreal moments playing live in the years since then. i’ve given better performances of better songs. but i’ve never felt anything like the collective explosion of sound that room packed with about four hundred people made twenty years ago when i was thirteen years old.
i think it’s kind of like your first kiss. if everything falls into place just right and you get the meeting of lips you deserve, the first one sears itself into your brain and never really leaves, and all the others that come after are judged against it.
i haven’t had a better kiss yet. i’m not sure i ever will.